As the Motor City saw a slight thaw in temperatures last Friday, I got an opportunity to venture out into the recesses of Detroit with some out-of-town visitors, including the DIA’s guest lecturer, photographer Ari Marcopoulos
. On his final day in the city, a mini road trip through some of our more well-known landmarks seemed in order, and Marcopoulos was anxious to get out and about in Detroit.
Untitled, 2009, © 2009 N.W. Barr
On any given day, one can witness a variety of visual extremes in our local landscape from the grandiose art deco excesses of the Guardian building to the perpetually graying and disintegrating corpse we all know and love as Michigan Central Station. Stopping nearby its ruins, we grabbed some lunch at the Mercury Coffee Bar. Over a plate of fresh greens, all you could see was the station’s wrecked facade from the counter bar. Nowhere else but in Detroit can you have a more surreal culinary experience, and I couldn’t help but think about this area as it existed decades ago, when the trains were running and Michigan Avenue was really alive.
From the train station, we decided to travel across town, ending up on Detroit’s east side, where the Packard plant, Albert Kahn’s industrial masterpiece, was the most awe-inspiring stop of the day.
Packard Plant, 2005, by Jessica Ehrler, ©2008-2009 Jessica Ehrler
In all its glorious and wintry decrepitude, the plant’s creepy vibe gave this author and my visitors more than a moment to pause and reflect since a strange serenity permeates this place. You never stop getting the feeling that something – you don’t really know what – may happen and that ghosts, their memories as well as local scrappers, haunt every path and corner. Fortunately, veteran urban adventurer/photographer and Packard plant enthusiast Jessie Ehrler was on hand to provide some history and lead us through the rubble. Back in October, Ehrler offered some guidance around town when Doug and Mike Starn visited the city to scout sites for their projects currently in development.
Untitled, 2008, by N.W.Barr, © 2009 N.W. Barr
Ehrler has been photographing Detroit’s ruins, specifically the Packard plant since around 2000. Her work came to my attention last year when she submitted images in the DIA’s on-line Flickr photo competition. She noted in her artist’s statement that the “silence of this building is eerie, but calming…” and perhaps her remarks uncover a larger revelation, namely that this city’s character is quietly emoting its new vocation as the artist’s muse. In the throes of “beautiful decay,” as some natives refer to Detroit’s widespread urban blight, the city has, for some time, been the subject of many Detroit-area photographers’ lens, but it is quickly becoming more than the local artist’s fancy.
Last Friday, a small group of my students from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, got a chance to experience first hand the wonders of our conservation lab here at the DIA. Conservators Valerie Baas and Chris Foster were kind enough to show them the various departments with a stop in the paper lab to look at a few objects in need of some minor repairs.
To the public, the DIA’s conservation lab may be something of an unknown entity, but it is a crucial behind-the-scenes operation with a variety of specialists that help the museum maintain and preserve its collection of art. I have known senior paper conservator Valerie Baas for about 15 years now, and her expertise in photography has been invaluable over the years. She will be a panelist along with Denise Bethel from Sotheby’s and Boston-area conservator Paul Messier at the 2009 Winter Meeting of the Photographic Materials Group of the American Institute for Conservation to be held January 23-25, 2009 at the Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon, Arizona. For more information on the AIC and its photography website – http://aic.stanford.edu/sg/pmg/index.html.
Angkor, Ta Prohm, Cambodia, 1993, by Kenro Izu
Here is a link to a story in the recent online issue of thedetroiter.com with Vince Carducci’s list of the best exhibits of 2008. It includes the Kenro Izu: Sacred Places exhibition. Thanks Vince!
A number of Ari Marcopoulos’ books arrived at the museum this week in plenty of time for his lecture/book signing on Jan.22. So I finally got my hands on a copy of his book The Chance Is Higher which was published in 2008 by Dashwood Books.
The book includes reproductions of large-scale photocopies that Ari made from his original photographs – portraits of his family, friends, and acquaintances interspersed with city views, graffiti, still life, and nudes; he even includes a few older portraits of Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat. An eerie and mesmerizing image of a skull – a tattoo on the back of a shirtless boy – floats beneath the embossed title and a fine pattern of cross-hatch found on the cover of this book. This texture gives it an inky flattened sheen like a faded tattoo, but it is reminiscent of a well-worn tapestry or an aged mezzotint. Strangely welcoming, a ghostly continuum follows. The imagery is steeped in memory, informed by urban iconography and the more intimate personal world and perceptions of the photographer.
The Chance is Higher (inside spread) by Ari Marcopoulos
The images may well be faithful reproductions of Ari’s grainy black-and-white photocopies. When I first looked through the pages of The Chance Is Higher, I experienced an aesthetic throwback to the 1970s, when experimenting with a xerox machine to make a homemade comic book, zine or flyer for a friend’s rock band required some pocket change and a trip to the local library or post office to make copies. Until Ari revived it, somewhat formally for this series and the book (he has used xeroxing for years to design his other books and zines), the photocopy was an old-school but treasured method of reproduction reserved for low-brow, albeit creative endeavors. It is ingeniously recaptured here with a remarkable amount of refinement and even a low-key elegance.