As has often been noted, photography is the original and quintessential medium of modernist visual expression. The insertion of a mechanical apparatus between the observer and the observed removes any trace of the hand, which cannot be completely eradicated in drawing or painting, and it provides an immediacy, and thus some would say an authenticity, to the captured image as a representation of reality. (Of course, there is a conundrum in that notion as a ‘representation’ is always already at once removed from the ‘real’.) Having been born in the early 1800s as a product of the Industrial Revolution, photography co-evolved with modernity, becoming increasingly technologically advanced and mobile, much like modern society itself.
The introduction of pervasive artificial illumination in modern cities in the West, along with advances in photosensitive emulsions and substrates, camera mechanics, and flash lighting, enabled the photographic documentation of nighttime urban scenes to emerge as a specific genre within the medium in the latter part of the 19th century. Detroit Institute of Arts co-chief curator Nancy Watson Barr draws on the museum’s vast collection of photographs to survey nighttime photography as it has been practiced in Detroit in recent decades. The book, Detroit After Dark: Photographs from the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, is the fourth in a series of publications on different aspects of Detroit photography and like the others it accompanies an exhibition of the same title on now view at the museum until 23 April 2017.
Because Barr has original source material of pretty much the entire history of photography at her disposal, she does more than just present a collection of images of the nocturnal Motor City, she puts them into context of the broader practice of the genre as it was pioneered in the two major sites of nighttime urban photography, Paris and New York City. Both are represented by icons of photographic history — Brassai, Alfred Steiglitz, Andre Kertesz, Bernice Abbott, and Weegee to name a few — and accompanied by essays from University of Michigan Professor of English Sara Blair and Parisian-born Detroit-based poet and critic Chris Tysh.
Paris, as both Walter Benjamin and David Harvey would have it, was the capital of modernity in the 19th century. Chris Tysh, in her essay on nocturnal images of the City of Light, associates the practice of nighttime photography (literally ‘light writing’) to the early illumination of Paris’s boulevards with gaslights and the city’s broader significance as the seat of Enlightenment, the philosophical fountainhead of modernity and ultimately the avant-garde. The photography of Paris at night, Tysh observes, is significant by virtue of ‘the very objects it chooses to render visible, but also through the viewing subject who captures the act of seeing.’ The Paris of the night is the purview of the demimonde and the flaneur, the aristocratic idler and detached observer of modern life first sketched out in the mid-19th century by doomed French poet Charles Baudelaire. Opening new ways of seeing beyond what is readily apparent, photography, particularly as revealed in nighttime images of Paris, illuminates, as it were, what Benjamin famously terms the ‘optic unconscious’.
If Paris is the Athens of modernity, then New York City is its Rome. Sara Blair in her essay portrays nighttime photography in New York as a means of understanding the modern metropolis as ‘by turns exhilarating, threatening, and overwhelming.’ On the one hand was the highbrow meditations on the formal qualities of light undertaken by Alfred Stieglitz and his associates of the New York Camera Club and the Photo-Succession. On the other hand was the representation of the teeming masses undertaken by muckrakers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, who used newly available portable flashes and cameras to literally shed light on how other half lives.
Representations of the city in all of its nakedness became the foundation for urban photographers like Weegee and Lisette Model, who scratched beneath the glossy surface of the city to uncover the grit of urban life as it was lived and often died at street level. (To return again to Benjamin, it was these images of modernity, stripped of their sacred aura through the process of mechanical reproduction and their broad distribution through modern media, that would enable the masses to apprehend themselves as a class in, of, and for itself, giving art the power to galvanize political consciousness, a promise that has alas gone unfilled, replaced by distraction under the society of the spectacle.
The transition from the historical context to the experience in Detroit is provided by Robert Frank, who spent time photographing the city in 1955 for his groundbreaking 1958 book, The Americans. (More than 60 of his Detroit photographs, the majority of which never made into the book, were exhibited at the DIA in the 2010 exhibition ‘Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs 1955’, the first of the aforementioned shows Barr has curated on photographic representations of the city.) One image shows what was at the time Detroit City Hall; dedicated on the Fourth of July 1871, it was demolished in 1961 and its rubble used to create a pier for recreational boaters in nearby Lake St. Clair. The other was actually taken 40 miles outside the city at a farmer’s strawberry stand.
The photographers of nocturnal Detroit build upon the legacy of their forebears, in some cases quoting famous photographs in their representations of the city. Joe DeBoer’s 2015 photo of Campus Martius in downtown Detroit is shot from a high angle, referring directly to Bernice Abbott’s famous 1932 image of New York at night. Brassai’s 1934 panorama of the Paris skyline shot from the top of Notre Dame cathedral, with a gargoyle in the foreground, is a direct antecedent to DeBoer’s 2014 image of the central business district titled Gothic Detroit.
Scott Hocking’s images of the city, shot with low horizon lines and wide angles, register the desolation of the city’s postindustrial landscape while avoiding the nostalgic romanticism that permeates the disreputable photographic genre known as ‘ruin porn’, which has attracted so many, mostly outsiders, in recent years who have visited the city to sample the sublime pleasures of late-modern capitalism’s remnants of creative destruction. Especially compelling is Hocking’s 2012 Jefferson at Dearborn, an image of a lone storefront illuminated by a single street light and surrounded by emptiness, made more palpable with the recognition of Jefferson Avenue as one of the five main arteries that originate in the city center and radiate out into the suburbs and beyond.
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Photographs of an older vintage document the city’s music scene, which before and after Motown has been a mainstay of Detroit nightlife. Perhaps the most famous image is Leni Sinclair’s 1968 shot of the MC5 performing at the Grande Ballroom, from the session that became the inside jacket of the band’s legendary Kick Out the Jams album, originally issued in gatefold format. Other images by Sue Rinski capture equally iconic personages, such as former MC5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and his wife Patti performing in 1980 at the New Miami Bar (now known as the Old Miami and a hangout for Vietnam War vets), Iggy Pop, again in 1980, at Bookie’s Club 870 (the same year I saw Gang of Four there, an event I credit with my subsequent partial loss of hearing as I have aged), and Destroy All Monsters in 1978 at the Red Carpet Lounge, featuring an upskirt shot of chanteuse Niagara, after co-founder bandmates Mike Kelly and Jim Shaw decamped to LA to become world-famous art stars and guitarist Ron Asheton of the Stooges and drummer Michael Davis of the MC5 joined up after the breakups of their respective groups.
The photos of Russ Marshall document Detroit’s jazz scene, many of whose local luminaries remain woefully under recognized. One of Marshall’s images is of a 1981 performance at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the world’s oldest continuously operating jazz club, featuring local pianist Claude Black backing up ex-Detroiter baritone sax man Pepper Adams. (I saw that gig, though on another night, on a date with the woman who is now my wife.)
A more upbeat note is sounded by photographers Dave Jordano and Jenny Risher (both alumni of the College for Creative Studies where — full disclosure — I currently serve as Undergraduate Dean, as are Scott Hocking and Robert Kangas, also in the show, as well as Barr herself for that matter). After some three decades as a highly successful commercial photographer based in Chicago, Jordano returned to his undergraduate thesis project of photodocumentation, a number of examples of which have been published in the award-winning book, Detroit Unbroken Down (powerHouse Books, 2015).
Neighborhood Fireworks on the Fourth of July, Goldengate Street, Detroit from 2014 shows a group of friends on a somewhat dilapidated front porch watching the streaming rockets of a fireworks barrage in full force in the foreground. Risher, who relocated back to the city after many years in New York as a fashion and advertising photographer, is represented by a series of portraits of Detroit hip-hop artists, including Awesome Dre and the Hardcore Committee, Guilty Simpson, Hex Murda, and J Dilla collaborator Phat Kat. In the work of both Jordano and Risher, the gritty determination of the denizens of the D to abide against all odds shines through.
Detroit After Dark adds another chapter to the nuanced portrait of the city Nancy Barr has been constructing via the photographic record. She has done the city and the genre of night photography a serious solid.