How did two young French photographers end up taking such stunning photographs of Detroit, Michigan? And why?
Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have always been interested in the theme of ruins: coming from Europe they saw bits of it in the landscape, but they dreamed of Detroit. It's a city that is emblematic of the de-industrialization of America. Once famous as the thriving centre for automobile manufacturing--Motor City--in 1950 there were two million people living there. Because there was such great wealth, there was also some spectacular architecture.
Detroit's decline from its glory days has been catastrophic. It was the fourth-largest city in the USA by 1920, a place it held until 1950. But globalization and mechanization meant drastic loss of jobs and massive unemployment. The city went into free-fall and by 2010 its population had dropped to 700,000 people. The once-glorious buildings had become abandoned factories, vacant schools and derelict ballrooms.
The two photographers recognized that the the ruins were ephemeral and could disappear any time and they wanted to record them before they changed completely.
Serendipitously, the artists were at the gallery when we visited. This TreeHugger spoke to Romaine Meffre at length about their work and the show. They visited Detroit seven times between 2005 and 2008 to photograph the abandoned and majestic buildings. They found them through research and just driving around the vast, sprawling city. Finding an empty ballroom, for example, was a total surprise to them.
They never broke into any of the buildings, all of them were just wide open, with all the bits and pieces left intact and untouched: at a police station there were files and uniforms left behind, books in the depository and chemistry bottles in the high school.
We asked why antique collectors hadn't snagged some of the pieces in the photos. In fact, the looting has now started, in the past year or two and the interiors are now known and changing rapidly.
For the most part they shoot the interiors using only natural light. They use a specially constructed camera, with very long exposures; sometimes as long as an hour. In the darkest interiors they rely on battery-powered lights. Many look like they are black and white, but in fact they are all colour: it's just the atmospheric nature of the large format photos.
Some Detroit residents are not pleased with this concept, calling it "ruin porn" and decrying the fact that there are lively and flourishing parts of the city. Romaine Meffre agrees. But maybe photography shows and books like this will encourage city officials to start valuing and renovating their heritage buildings instead of abandoning them.
Speramus meliora, resurget cineribus (“We hope for better things, which shall rise from the ashes”)