I’ve always had an interest in shooting the “urban landscape” – the structures, the beehive of activity and the interactions between the two. I’ve been in Southeast Michigan for coming on eight years, but was far enough from the City of Detroit that I did not really grant myself many opportunities to make photographs of the area. However, a recent job change not only had me move closer to the City, but actually drive through it on a daily basis.
In April of 2010, an old church in Poletown East just off of I94 had been catching my eye, so I pulled over for a closer look. While weaving around to get to the church, I noticed many buildings that were in various states of decline, but the ones that really stood out were the burned out shells. I had only covered a few blocks and I came across a dozen or so – burned out store fronts, former bars, and homes. The more curious thing is that it appeared that the fires had been long extinguished, but the remnants were just left to rot. That experience led me to begin this project of documenting the remnants of fires all over the city.
Fires in urban neighborhoods have a long history and Detroit has it’s own little niche´ with Devil’s Night. For over 20 years, people would set fires the night before Halloween all over the city just for the fun of it. In 1994, Detroit had finally had enough and stepped up law enforcement presence, volunteer patrols, and implemented a curfew. Since then, the problem has been well under control. However, the fires still continue, sparked by other means.
Due to the large areas of abandoned homes and buildings, there are actually occasional wildfires that occur, similar to those you might see in our national parks. Instead of trees and brush, the fuel for these fires are the blocks and blocks of empty structures. In fact, we had such and example on September 7th, 2010. High winds in the area helped spread fires to 85 structures in several east side neighborhoods.
This project of mine is not another “look at the decay of Detroit” expose´. At least that is not my intention – to show how this city seems to have fallen into despair and disrepair with little hope of improvement on the horizon for my own personal gain. It just sort of struck me as more of a reflection of the communities, how in so many areas people have just given up. There is a clear separation of the “haves” and “have-nots” in Detroit – much more drastic than I have seen in other urban centers. You can literally cross the street from a broken down slum to an affluent neighborhood with pristine homes and manicured lawns. Detroit was once on the top of the world – an example of what is great about America. Hard work, strong community, people living the dream of a good job and a house for the family. It’s just been so tough for so long around here that one can really see how so many have lost hope and aspirations.
This project is just in the infancy stage. The Gallery contains the images with a brief description of either the address (if known) or the block of the street of the building. The Stories page are some little notes on the shoots that you might find interesting. Sort of my thought processes and what I noticed when I was in the area. One thing I would really like to do is go back and research when these fires occurred, who lived there or what business was operating, and tie that back to the photos. I feel that this is important to tie this history to the photos in order that they actually speak for the people in the community and not just show a pile of burned rubble.
All photos have been shot with a Voigtlander Bessa R3A Rangefinder camera equipped with a 40mm f1.4 Nokton lens, typically with a red or orange filter in place using Kodak Tri-X film. All film has been personally processed by me and then scanned with an Epson Perfection V700 Photo scanner. I may go back to certain areas and shoot some medium format (also on Tri-X), but for right now I want to stick with the rangefinder to maintain a documentary feel to the project.
Feel free to comment – drop me a line via the contact page and let me know what you think. If you have any ideas for me, either on locations or work for charities or non-profit organizations, please pass it on. Please click on the Purchase page for information on obtaining prints of any of the photos found on this web site.
100 Abandoned Houses
On one final note, I would like to discuss another wonderful documentary photo project called 100 Abandoned Houses done by another Detroit area photographer Kevin Bauman. When I was about a month into my little project, I stumbled on to his work. I really want to just point out that I am not trying to take away from his work or duplicate it in any way. I had gotten my idea and started my project without even being aware of Kevin’s. However, please visit his site as there are some fantastic photographs giving you additional perspective of our area.