In his recent essay in Places, Jerry Herron criticizes the ubiquitous “ruin porn” photography that “mystifies into ‘poetic’ inconsequence and remoteness the past that is represented by Detroit, and along with it the conclusions we might draw as a result.” By now we are familiar with these images, from the highly accomplished and beautifully printed photographs that adorn museum walls and fill coffeetable tomes to the endless Flickr streams devoted to the photogenic downfall of America’s industrial powerhouse.
Many of these images are indeed quite beautiful, the best touching on the sublime and reminding us that everything is destined to pass. But almost always these reminders are without context; and so it’s hard to see ourselves as implicated in the destruction that is being documented, and to feel that this is happening to us — and because of us — in the span of a few generations. “Images stepped out of time, that’s what turns tragedy into art,” Herron notes. These artful images allow us to contemplate the idea of decline from a comfortable distance, perhaps experiencing a solemn sense of enlightenment, though neither responsibility nor consequence.
The idea of the picturesque, which guides much contemporary ruin photography, was developed, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, in large part to enable the aesthetic contemplation of ruins. As modernity was taking hold, wealthy Europeans took to touring the countryside, seeking out pastoral scenes and crumbling ruins and framing the views in their Claude glasses — the hipstamatic of the 18th century, these were small, darkened mirrors that would instantly turn vivid reality into a nostalgia-tinged picture. Using the Claude glass, the tourist would turn his back to the world and, in the small mirror, view the dimmed and desaturated reflection of the scene ahead. Today, at the close of the industrial age, we have replaced mirrors with screens — all those placeless photos of Detroit’s ruins look especially sexy on our iPads.
Dave Jordano’s photographs of Detroit help provide an antidote to this process of mystification. Jordano was a student of photography at the College for Creative Studies in his native Detroit in the early 1970s. Following the example of his photography heroes — Walker Evans, Robert Frank and others who also stretched, but did not break, the bounds of the documentary tradition — he set out back then to photograph his city. More recently, Jordano, who now works as a commercial photographer in Chicago, has been revising his student photographs and rephotographing the sites of the originals.
The resulting project, a selection of which is presented here, shows Detroit at two moments in time through the eyes of the same photographer. Ironically, it is Jordano’s inclusion of images of the past alongside contemporary views that helps to anchor us in the here-and-now. That these pairs of then-and-now images are by the same photographer implicates us in the changes they depict: this has happened — is still happening — in our lifetimes. Jordano’s Detroit is a living city that is part of our reality. It is a peopled city, even in the images of vacant spaces, and we understand its transformation as the result of decisions made by people — not as an artifact that results from the disembodied force of historical entropy. We cannot deny responsibility nor rest in a “fantasy about how we can always walk away from the past,” as Herron puts it. Detroit’s fate is not separate from our own, and we have to deal with it, one way or another.