Found Photos in Detroit reviewed by Vince Leo

Funny what photographers find on the street once they start looking. Robert Frank found latent disillusion; Gary Winnogrand found random social clarity; Phillip Lorce DeCorcia found the breadth and depth of exchange. Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese, two photographers from Italy, found photographs.

Not just one or two. Walking the streets of Detroit, Arcara and Santese found thousands of photographs. Found Photos in Detroit is a selection of this archive. There are mugshots, snapshots, interiors, police documentation, cars and notes varying in condition from unreadable abstraction to heartbreaking clarity. The only thing we know for sure about these photographs is the most important thing to know: they have all been abandoned. We don’t know who abandoned them: it could have been a family member or a bored janitor, it could have been the photographer or the subject of the photograph. All we know is that these photographs have come unmoored from the ties that bound them into a system of social meaning. They have been lost to the streets of Detroit, moving inexorably through various degradations toward a blank field of dissolution. It’s not a pretty picture. Maybe it never was.

One more thing: Except for a single group portrait, every photographed person in Found Photos In Detroit is African American. Young and old, male and female, staring, glaring, entreating. The message is clear: It is Black culture, their houses, their rule of law, their very selves that have been abandoned. Like homeless ghosts, the social reality of these photographs haunts Detroit and America, signifying a despair so deep that abandonment is the only method left to represent their loss.

Within the form of the book, Arcara and Santese have constructed a shelter for these homeless images and, by extension, renewed meaning and social contact for their subjects. In the process, they have also created a powerful document of contemporary Detroit that moves beyond the bailout and the romanticized urban ruins of good times past to address the human tragedy that are the results of inequality, racism, and political impotence. That said, there’s no walking away from the fact that these images and their subjects tell another story. As so often in the past, these African-Americans have been reconstructed into a narrative not of their own making, revealing their utter representational powerlessness, no matter the intentions of the current powers that be. That is the agonizing contradiction at the heart of Found Photos in Detroit: that the source of its power as a social critique is made possible only by appropriating the despair of the abandoned. To hold those contradictory positions in your mind is to grasp the cost of representation; to hold them in your heart is to know truth as an oppressive other.

– Vince Leo

20 Replies to “Found Photos in Detroit reviewed by Vince Leo”

  1. Vince’s insights into the contradictions and power of these abandoned portraits brings new meaning to the idea of ‘looking for pictures’. This essay also reminds me of just how fresh and surprising Vince can be about things (photographic and otherwise) I thought I knew. Thanks!

    1. Discarded or lost images feature often in the photographic world. Another example with a commentary on the topis by Dr Marcus Bunyan relates to photographs found after the Japanese tsunami that are featured on a show in Melbourne Australia. SEE Review: Lost & Found: Family Photos Swept away by the 3.11 East Japan Tsunami’ at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Fitzroy, Melbourne.

  2. About appropriation and the creative use of found photography (or found photograph materials) I suggest you to look at the astonishing work of portuguese photographer José Luis Neto, who has been working this themes for years. Specially the series “PMC/PMI Passport”, “High Speed Press Plate”, “22474 / 22475”.

  3. Vince, the first sentence of your review mentions Robert Frank. You recently showed me an essay you wrote on Frank where you discuss this picture:

    Robert Frank, San Francisco (1956), from “The Americans”

    I’m wondering if you could paraphrase what you said here. Also, I’m curious what your take is on the role of the foreignness of the authors. Does the fact that Frank is Swiss and Arcara and Santese are Italian change the way you think about their engagement with the subject?

    1. I’m a little hesitant to paraphrase myself, but an editor is an editor….never to be trifled with!

      So briefly the rf is a powerful document not only of racism but of a racist photographic engagement.

      And yes, I thought about rf and Arcara and Santese as Europeans but for some reason I always come back to the work. I can conceptualize that individuals from another culture might note and pay attention to different things than americans might, but in attempting to turn that conceptualization into meaning, my imagination literally fails me. So not much.

      I would point out that my understanding of both the rf and Found Photographs stems from an encounter related in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. James Agee is out for a Sunday stroll when he sees a young African American couple ahead of him on the road. He shouts and begins to head quickly in their direction hoping to start up a conversation. To his horror, hie discovers that they are paralyzed with fear, convinced that any white man shouting and heading in their direction could only mean them harm. Agee prostrates himself, but it’s too late, his best intentions transformed into malevolent transaction by an evil he lost track of. All that’s left is to write it down, witness the larger crime and his part in it, and hope for the best. This encounter has been seminal to everything I think about representation, especially Agee’s understanding that as imperfect as it is, it’s the only way we have to understand a cruel world of bitter power en route to a better one.

      btw: for anyone interested in James Agee, there’s a wonderful new appreciation here:

  4. “. . . the source of its power as a social critique is made possible only by appropriating the despair of the abandoned. To hold those contradictory positions in your mind is to grasp the cost of representation; . . . to know truth as an oppressive other.”

    One of the (many) interesting things about the book is the photos that are formal or official in structure, such as school or identity photos: perhaps it is that they’ve become rancid with garbage & dirt & have a strange, damaged patina, but the people in the images seem barely there, & that perfunctory, standardized camera frame seems devious, a provisional stage-set – the camera as panopticon. The spectrality of the photograph has been written about extensively in abstract, philosophical terms: what I admire about the review is that the same spectrality extends to the social and political, and it is perceived in anonymous materials.

  5. One thing I love about this book is the way it taps into the larger discussion about ‘disaster porn.’ Back in 2006 in a blog post called, ‘Where are the people?‘, I wrote:

    Are we supposed to erase images of people to make photographs palatable for the art market? I suppose people are disturbed by the idea of, in the words of Shulman, ‘using people.’ It is disturbing. Photographs of people use people. It makes us uncomfortable. But it is also what makes the medium so potent. I’ve been thinking about this issue in relation to the spate of fine-art images from Katrina: Robert Polidori, Chris Jordan, Katherine Wolkoff and others. I think these are all terrific photographers. And they’ve done admirable work. But after awhile I find the absence of people in the pictures a little frustrating.

    In an essay in the Atlantic in 2011, Noreen Malone writes something similar about photographs from Detroit:

    I suspect it’s not an accident that the pictures of Detroit that tend to go viral on the Web are the ones utterly devoid of people. We know intellectually that people live in Detroit (even if far fewer than before), but these pictures make us feel like they don’t. The human brain responds very differently to a picture of a person in ruin than to a building in ruin—you’d never see a magazine represent famine in Africa with a picture of arid soil. Without people in them, these pictures don’t demand as much of the viewer, exacting from her engagement only on a purely aesthetic level. You can revel in the sublimity of destruction, of abandonment, of the march of change—all without uncomfortably connecting them with their human consequences.

    ‘Found Photos From Detroit’ does show the people. But at the same time, it has some of the allure of decay found in the architectural work of Camilo José Vergara, Andrew Moore and others who’ve worked in Detroit. For me, this friction between aesthetics and real life/lives gives the book a disquieting energy that makes it come alive.

    1. Alec, I think I was (and am) broadly in agreement with what you wrote back in 2006. I wrote a short blog post about Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s Detroit book last year, and in it I wrote this having to do with the ‘mummification’ effect of excluding any imagery of actual people:

      “The kind of fascination these ruins photographs express toward an absent and inarticulate past militates against a desire to understand them in the present, in a more nuanced socio-political and historical context. If a city such as Detroit is understood as a residue of vacant schools and early 20th century dental surgeries, abandoned post offices and police stations, then it is a place from which history has long since moved on.

      The photograph is a willing accomplice in this kind of a narrative, this kind of narrative exclusion. A frozen image of a seemingly frozen place invites a sense of the anxiety of obsolescence, a sense of despair and incomprehension. A group of photographs drawing these various mortuaries together in a patchwork of empty communal spaces begins to imply catastrophe, an unalterable desolation. Such a dogged fascination with the pervasiveness and seeming anachronism of ruins in a modern city in fact supplants historical curiosity with hopelessness, suggests that the collapse has been so fundamental it cannot be described or redressed.”

      I went on to finish quoting a Detroit native, Professor John Patrick Leary, in an excellent essay he wrote for Guernica in January of 2011. It’s well worth at least a brief look for those interested in these questions (link below):

      “The editorial decision not to connect the physical mass of abandoned spaces to everyday business of living that still goes on in the city leaves them vulnerable to a criticism that John Patrick Leary makes in his essay: “So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city.“

      As Leary himself states, “no photograph can adequately identify the origins for Detroit’s contemporary ruination; all it can represent is the spectacular wreckage left behind in the present, after decades of deindustrialization, housing discrimination, suburbanization, drug violence, municipal corruption and incompetence, highway construction, and other forms of urban renewal have taken their terrible tolls.” However the advantage of the more holistic approach undertaken by W. Eugene Smith is that looking again at his sprawling, somewhat preposterous and overwhelmingly poetic portrait of Pittsburgh it is possible to see in his images the ancestry of the postindustrial present, to find prolepsis in the prints. For what is missing from Marchand and Meffre’s portrait is humanity and its various strategies of resistance and adaptation, its suffering and its struggles, and this absence represents a kind of excommunication of modern day Detroit.”

      I would need to really take a look at the book to have stronger sense of how Arianna and Luca have taken on the difficult question of representing the unrepresented, but I think at least provisionally I would agree with Vince that working with these pictures of people from this particular place forces the question of power back viscerally back into the equation, and in that speaks to the history of the place in which these portraits were found. I also think, perhaps perversely, that these portraits benefit from being freighted with everything we’ve come to know about Detroit (and photographic representations *of* Detroit) in recent years… Thanks for sharing them.

  6. With some strange coincidences, I’m surprised that the following photo of a pile of mugshots and its related project from two French photographers (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre) has not been included in the discussion.

    The entire post is found here:

    Having been born and raised in Metro Detroit, I have a certain concern about how the city is often framed. I’m tired of seeing ruin p0rn because it bypasses the history of a people and also those who have and continue to struggle with the decline of a community.

    Having returned last summer for a visit after being away for nearly 20 years, I did see how empty the city had become but, nevertheless, was encouraged at how the city survived, at least in some ways, like with flourishing green urban gardens and that same hard working attitude. Of course, the city is not near where it was with its prosperity and population, which numbered at some 1.85 million people at its peak. But perhaps moving away from the damaging industrial ways of the 20th century is a good thing. I think so. I hope so.

    Regardless, with this project, showing photographs of people is a positive development in my mind compared to what I expect to see from photographers who usually take pictures of the city’s storied past but don’t care to reflect on the human-side of the current or the future.

    I would like to add that these photos are likely only a snapshot of recent history but, of course, do reflect on the momentum of the past . The idea that every picture is of an African American is an indicator of the current population but also, perhaps, the inequality of a large American industrial city and what happens when the jobs leave due to poor foresight and mismanagement by some of the United States largest companies and their CEOs. I can’t help but think that these pictures directly represent home foreclosures and the need of having to move quickly before the house is locked or torn down by the bank.

  7. The photos also make me interrogate my own nostalgia in looking at anonymous photographs: the images can be fascinating by themselves in whatever state, & the existential relation at looking at something “unmoored” from its intentionality (& that intentionality seems like it would be in decline almost immediately upon the photograph being made) can be mitigated by the distance involved. Is it cute? Is attractive? Did I miss something great somewhere? Perhaps it is that the photos in Found in Detroit have relatively little time-lag, & compositionally they have more of a forensic structure than one based in picturesque values; & they were abandoned in our own time, rather than in a long ago, far away distant past.

    There’s an image in the Andrew Moore book of people on a rooftop which is less spectacular than most of his photographs – its relative quietness gives it a different sort of reality: it brings up that these places are not entirely abandoned, that that is more a visual fantasy – there are still people about. & I don’t bring that up to disparage Andrew Moore or any of the others, but as was just brought up – without people it’s a visual trope akin to say 19th century views of medieval ruins, a kind of modernist vanitas.

  8. First of all we would like to thank you for the interesting discussion about our project.

    We have been discussing about “Disaster Porn” from the beginning.
    In the meantime this phenomenon has also helped us. The documentation on the city for the preparation of the work has been also collected through the images of a group of photographers from Detroit who used to roam around the ruins.
    From another part we were concerned about the massive production of images of the city and, since our intention was to take some pictures, we should have striven to the “not porn” aspects of the city.
    Once in Detroit, we were looking for someone who had experience in the city, someone who could help us.
    The following day we met Bruce, with some of his friends and students, close to the Packard Plant, ready for a photographic expedition.

    Here again another group of photographers intent to produce pornography, including us, of course.
    We had been taking pictures for days and at the beginning this seemed to be satisfactory.
    Instead of our new friends’ customary practices, we were looking for people.
    We wondered about the same problem discussed above: our photos of Detroit were shortage of human presence.

    So one morning we were shooting close to Highland Park looking for Detroiters and we found ourselves in front of the first polaroid. Few days later the found polaroids become dozens and we felt we were finding the Detroiters we were looking for.

    Not that the people we photograph were less significant or important, but when we found the first images we immediately became aware of their power.
    Besides the obvious beauty, the strength of these images was for us that they came from “inside the city”, from the years of crisis. As far as we know, the stock is between the years 60/70 to 90.

    As photographers, we felt powerless in front of this material by far stronger than any image we could shoot.
    We were working on the American crisis and the original intent was to create a photographic project about the city that has become a symbol of the crisis itself.
    Our intention was to give a different cut to the story, anyway the problem is that it was like shooting the “aftermath” of the crisis.
    We felt kinda helplessness for having arrived late.
    We were already in the future history of Detroit, but with the intention of talking about the past.

    These found photos put in evidence this delay, but at the same time they appeared able to fill this gap.
    This invisible and anonymous photographer (there are certainly more photographers, for irrational reasons, for us it was like just one) overcame us in every field: aesthetics, content, amount of work, depth of the story.
    At this point we could not do anything else than take a step back, so the ”disaster porn” became for us archeology.

    While we were preparing the exhibition at Le Bal, Josef Koudelka approached us and looking at the photos he said ” it will always be more and more difficult to take pictures”.

    Assuming that it is extremely delicate to distinguish between photographers and not photographers today, what we would like to ask is: which is the role of a photographer in a world where there is a massive production of images and also increased the cases in which those types of photographs (taken by ”not photographers”) are stronger than those taken by a photographer which have the deliberate intent to tell a story?

    1. I think the found-picture/photographer-as-curator approach can be very strong as it it is an attempt to solve a problem that seems to have been around (I’m too young to speak from experience) for the last 50 years, i.e. how to avoid making pictures that follow pictorial conventions. Or in simpler words, how to make ‘authentic’ pictures.
      The snapshot approach that came up in the 60s/70s seems to have been one attempt to solve that problem by denying technical proficiency but of course nothing can defy becoming conventional eventually. The denial of authorship that goes along with the curatorial approach is still quite powerful but I’m not sure if this can be upheld much longer as an artistic device for authenticity. I’m not saying that I think it will fail as an artistic device altogether (just as the snapshot approach can still be successful) but, just as it’s harder and harder to take pictures, it will be harder and harder to collect/find/curate pictures.
      Everyone’s a photographer nowadays but in the age of reblogging, sharing and liking, everyone’s also becoming a curator. And the fact that this feels like an embarassingly obvious thing to say shows how commonplace this has become.

      In any case, I haven’t seen your book (ordering it now) but it seems that the power of the book lies not really in the fact that the pictures were taken by non-photographers (although it couldn’t have been any other way) but in the way that it reverses the model in which decay is usually shown. We are used to seeing beautiful large format pictures of things that have broken down, that are past their prime, that only allude to how magnificent they used to be. In your book the picture surfaces are ugly and decayed but what they show (according to what I’ve seen so far) are mostly young people, supposedly people in their prime that never looked more beautiful than they did then. But even their ‘prime’ seems to not have been a good one and the bleek outlook that these young faces of the past manifest seems to have found its conclusion in the poor state of the photographs. Instead of seeing how beautiful something that’s broken down can be we get to see how broken down something beautiful can be.

      One last thing that also plays into this is that one can’t help to wonder what kind of despair someone has to be in to leave behind or discard their family pictures. If you ask people what possession they would rescue if their house was on fire one of the most common answers is ‘family albums’.

  9. Thank you for jumping into the discussion and sharing your interesting project. Alec keyed in on one area via Twitter, which is this:

    “what we would like to ask is: which is the role of a photographer in a world where there is a massive production of images and also increased the cases in which those types of photographs (taken by ”not photographers”) are stronger than those taken by a photographer which have the deliberate intent to tell a story?”

    With the glut of images today, I am less interested in single pictures. With that, I would say that the photographs taken by “not photographers” are not more powerful. Rather, it comes down to how the images are arranged. For that, I’m not sure if a photographer is needed but rather a story teller.

    Also, I’m becoming more inclined to the idea of the importance of access. For some major media stories, the pro photographers are being passed over to individuals with cellphones who post their photos to Twitter. While it’s helpful to be a skilled photographer, in some instances, having access to a place, time, person, etc., can and is more important than any other factor. In fact, part of the reason I enjoy photographing my own family is that nobody has the same kind of access that I have and that helps make my photos a unique opportunity. What I find interesting with your Found Photos in Detroit is that the access was open to anyone willing to look.

  10. John,
    we completely agree with your statements.

    The choice of the images, the sequence – in the form of book and exhibition – are certainly predominant elements that determines the need of the author’s presence, wether the author is a photographer, a story-teller, or more generically, a ‘thinking mind’.

    There are no doubts about the need of photographer’s professionalism and his ability to access to certain situations and places.
    What we now notice and often discuss about is the effectiveness, or what we previously defined ‘power’, of the production of amateur images that we think often surpass the photographer and his figure in the photographed situation.

    There are no doubts about the fact that photographer’s role is legitimate and that he developes a strong relationship with the subjects and the places he photographs. But what clearly resultes if we consider, for instance, the Abu Ghraib abuses’ images and we relate them to the issue discussed above is:
    the ‘non-photographers’ soldiers who shot these images were involved in that situation in a completely different way respect to a professionist photographer. The same act of shooting those photographs was an integral part of the ‘perversion’ of what was happening.

    At this point the direction of the discourse seems to turn on the other way around.
    A professionist photographer would have necessarily imposed his point of view in such a situation, his moral and aesthetical sensibility, perhaps even a judgment.
    But if that was the case, I’m sure we wouldn’t have obtained the same power into the representation of war’s brutality, that is strongly present in this amateur images in which sequence, aesthetic, organization of the narration seem superfluous.

    If we take one more step behind and go back to our project, we have to remark the fact to have choosen to tell/narrate Detroit and its inhabitants in the way they have represented themselves, and to have completely nullified our presence.
    It is evident this can’t be completely true as we found the photos, choose to collect them and make an archive with them, and choose to put them in a book/exhibition with a specific sequence.

    On a slight boundary line between authorship and non-autorship, we decided to hide ourselves the most we could but being present at the same time.

    1. The discussions about photographing Detroit bring up so many issues, in general, about photography – in its scope, its agency, and its potential.

      Perhaps the disturbing aspect of the various topographical Detroit images (Stan Douglas, Andrew Moore, Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre, etc.) is that they invoke as much pleasure in looking as they do in sociological recognition. & that pleasure is not consistent or in tandem with whatever it we are supposed to be seeing. I’m wary of looking for any clues as to why things are the way they are, in the images. The images are simply there – they don’t tell us much more than that, although that can be plenty & it can offer a sense of texture outside of any official pieties. I urge anyone to take a walk around downtown Detroit, while it is possible to walk in blocks of vacant skyscrapers – it’s an exquisite sensation, like being in a De Chirico painting, just as much as one may be weirded out by the contradictions of our economy.

      Any shock about the decay should take into account that the decline has been in motion for several decades – the Big 3 auto companies began to close plants & move elsewhere in the 1970s. What we have here are the decadent remains of Fordism. Is its obsolescence an accident or built into its structure?

      Any sensationalism as to the conditions of the city seem more in the realm of its reportage, such as the year long office set up in Detroit by Time Magazine. It’s presented as if its an inconceivable disaster: What happened? & despite evidence to the contrary, it’s treated as if it is somehow unique. Perhaps its scale is unique, it’s former large size.

      There’s some local ambivalence to Detroit’s newfound picturesqueness. It reminds me of the early days of ACT UP which addressed the representation of AIDS, which resulted in protests at MoMA over an exhibit by Nicholas NIxon, among others. While the scale is different in terms of the issues at hand, in both cases there has been a sense of representation as misrepresentation, & that it was right at hand. Imagine my surprise (as a former Detroiter) to find Detroit to have become exotic – like Havana or Berlin. Who knew?

  11. Hi everybody,

    I’m going to join this discussion but first I’d like to make my background clear: I’m from Germany, never been in the U.S. and most of what I know about Detroit comes from articles written by geographers. So my thoughts might be a bit abstract and I’ll be happy to learn from your reactions.

    I experience a lot of problems with the photographic representation of Detroit. And I will not even start to complain about ruin porn, it’s obvious that these kind of works have just been produced to serve the needs of mass media and never had any intention of explaining a complicated issue.
    When I first had a chance to have a look at the dummy of the book about a year ago (unfortunately I did not see it again after that), I was really happy to see a different take on the shrinking city topic. And I think this book really manages to make its reader reflect. I do share most of the positive opinions about this book written in the posts above, which is why I will focus on the aspects that I think still require some questioning:
    1. Why is it always Detroit? I do not see why this town always needs to serve as THE example of urban degradation, shrinking cities and the crisis of capitalism. With none of the approaches I have seen so far (including this book) the very complex reasons for the degradation of the inner city of Detroit can be explained. As thegreatleapsideways said before with a quote of Leary, it is more about Eisenhower’s highway act, the liberalization of the real estate market and the subsequent massive suburbanization which led to the decay of inner Detroit (which started decades ago). What is really important here: The bigger Detroit still grows and has never been shrinking. But looking at the book in 2012 – in the middle of a big economical crisis – the reader easily relates the story to all the stuff that is happening in the financial world right now. But it seems that what happened in Detroit has very little to do with that. Probably there are many other cities which are a lot more appropriate for talking about this topic. Focusing on always the same example mystifies reality, creates a symbol which leads us farer away from a real understanding of the struggles we are facing. So when we talk about Detroit what should be the topic?
    2. Why is talking about decay always related to looking back and seeing the negative sides? Sure it is important, but it has been done over and over again.
    In this work we have a human presence, which creates a way deeper discourse. But still it consists of people who do not exist like this anymore. Because they (or their photographs) have been left behind and their image already started to deteriorate. I see a strong parallel here to the photographs of deteriorated buildings. They don’t talk, they don’t question the photographer’s concept and they remind us of the past. Many people on these found photographs probably faced discrimination and poverty. But probably many of them also reacted to this. Why don’t we give them a voice? Also let’s talk about the bright side of things which also exists in Detroit, about the potentials that lie in these places, about the future. This has been done, but very little. Maybe because it sells a lot less. I saw some stories about urban gardening (another favorite topic of mass media which outshines so many other equally important issues) and artists creating in Detroit. But not enough. Shrinking cities are full of potentials: It is places with a lot of space available (which nowadays is a very uncommon thing in a big city) and to a very affordable price. Or even for free, because mostly there is not enough public money to pay authorities who could kick you out.
    Manchester is one of the first shrinking cities and our contemporary musical landscape would be very different without all the crazy parties that went on in the empty warehouses already decades ago. Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about different concepts of living being possible in these oases of chaos in an elsewhere hyper-controlled world. Because sooner or later we will have to somehow drag ourselves out of all this well organized mess.

    A very interesting project and a very inspiring read are the two catalogues which accompanied the Shrinking Cities Project funded by Germany’s federal cultural foundation. They contain more than 1500 pages of explanations of the shrinking process and (more interesting to me) a whole variety of reactions on it. Two books full of answers and inspirations. Here’s the link:

    To conclude: I really do think that “Found Photos in Detroit” is a great book and I want to express my respect to Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese for what they did. Also because their work is very different from what I have seen so far. My critique only aims at opening up the whole topic a little bit more.

  12. While trying to observe some sense of boundaries as a generic stranger in the blogosphere, in regards to the statements of others, the last reply by Nico Baumgarten incited me to contradict my sense of propriety to bring up my opinions in regards to photogenic Detroit.

    I’m a bit confused by the conjecture that Detroit is overemphasized in its representation, or that it is not germane to discussions of globalizing economy, or that it is being done because of mass media. If anything, the “ruin porn” of Detroit exists primarily in a rarified artistic realm of galleries & finely printed books – it’s not so common beyond that. & it’s not the only local “disaster” out there – there are books about New Orleans & Camden out there. I do not think Detroit as a “symbol” is outside current economics. The Marxist critique of capitalism is that it has its obsolescence inscribed in it – it is a system of contradictions which ultimately negates itself: one could say that Detroit (along with many other US cities) illustrates such a view, as exemplars of capitalist achievement which are now given the all too genteel term of “shrinking”. In terms of US exceptionalism there has been an idea of the “sky’s the limit” in terms of productivity & profit. Another European who never visited Detroit but wrote about it was Antonio Gramsci who wrote about Fordism & the sense of productivity being inscribed in all aspects of daily life, in a setting without any past history or culture to consider otherwise.The idea of the modern city as a place of unlimited potential is not unique to Detroit, but it is inscribed in its history, which was transformed & dominated by the auto industry. In terms of modernity, Detroit has an almost Faustian trajectory in terms of its embrace of the automobile industry, although that is not exactly unique to the place either – think of the world without automobiles.Detroit did not invent the automobile nor was it the only supplier, however Ford in his ingenuity took the car & made it cheaply enough so that the working man, the people working at his factory, could own it too – this was a radical action in terms of its consolidation of the working class into a semblance of the bourgeoisie, & inscribing the working class into a middle class economy.

    When I see the photos in “Found in Detroit” that form of class warfare comes to mind, in the way that images contribute to the illusions they are meant to sustain – of stability, coherence, identity – in the face of a ruthless economy which, like in a horror movie, we now see after-the-fact it is quick to discard, as cheap, sentimental slop.

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