I Remember Detroit

It is already over twenty years since I lived in Detroit––twenty years since the deepest depression of my life, which coincided with the struggle to commit myself to the risks of living as an artist.  Perhaps it was coincidental that the inner struggle was played out in Detroit, America’s most notorious failed city, but there is no question that I found some respite from my internal darkness in photographing my way through the city’s abjection.  I learned the city hungrily, driving all of its neighborhoods in all seasons and all times of day and night.  I read books and tried to grasp the collapse. 

In an old notebook from that time, I find this entry:

The obvious:  the white owning class and the white middle class abandoned Detroit, each for its own reasons––the former basically for profit and the latter from racist fear.  The catastrophe of Detroit is a case study in the predatory logic of American greed and meanness, the bully game of the rich beating up on the most vulnerable in the society to win the political support of working and middle class whites who are a few rungs above African America in the social and economic hierarchy.

When I left Detroit in 1996, I took a few hundred sheets of 35mm negatives with me, having printed virtually none of them when I lived there, and without a conviction that I would print them later.  I never did print them.  The next time I made photographs in Detroit, a single afternoon in the autumn of 2009, I ended the day with many rolls of medium format film in my pocket, and again printed virtually none of them.  It was the same story in 2016, when I photographed in Detroit for the first time in color.  I made scores of pictures which have been sitting in hard drives. 

Perhaps the problem is that the city overwhelms photography––that its suffering breaks the frame, refuses the impulse to hold it close by way of images.  Or perhaps the problem is that the city overwhelms me, exceeds my emotional capacity to solve it for images, or triggers an awareness of psychic turbulence still somehow unhealed, which I came to associate with the city.

In a recent notebook, I wrote this:

The point of photographing in Detroit is not to feed by-now cliched images of spectacular ruin, but to receive Detroit fairly––as a site of mourning for the savagery and losses of postwar American capitalism.  It is the non-spectacular ruination of Detroit that is the most important part of its urban geography––the strange aftermath of the social violence unleashed over decades on the city.  Me, it’s not that I want to reduce Detroit to its ruins––I don’t deny the innovation and grit of many Detroiters, evident in some parts of the city.  But the “revival” along the Woodward corridor, I wouldn’t call it a revival, rather a highly selective reinvestment.  Revival––undoing the vast regions of the city’s blight––is lifetimes away for Detroit.

Recently I spent an afternoon making several rolls of black and white 35mm pictures in the same neighborhoods where I photographed in 2009, with the idea of a new assemblage.  Maybe I’ll actually make that piece, and maybe I won’t.  For reasons I don’t understand, the next day I was drawn back to those neighborhoods and spent a few hours making color pictures without thinking too much about why I was making them.  I made a sequence of them for my website––for the unsatisfying concentration that websites allow––including a few of the decade-old medium format pictures.

If this sequence is something I have held in myself for all these years, not knowing when or how it would emerge, Detroit remains a traumatized city on which I wish to exert no claim.

Jason Francisco
December 2017