Inspiration Among the Ruins – Detroit’s New Vocation

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 Untitled, 2009, © 2009 N.W. Barr

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 Ehrlers, ©2008-2009 Jessica Ehrlers

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, © 2009 N.W. Barr

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.

5 responses to “Inspiration Among the Ruins – Detroit’s New Vocation

  1. Hello, this is just to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. I am a former Detroiter, living in New York City. I have been doing some work about Detroit & I am interested in how others have photographed it – both historically & contemporaneously. I was very impressed with the flickr images done in conjunction w/ the Kenro Izu show. & I am very curious about the mention of a possible show of Robert Frank images of Detroit – I saw some in the Tate catalog – well, I’m looking forward to it, that’s all I can say.

  2. Hi Bernard, I am really happy to hear from you. For years, your book donations to the DIA’s library have been an absolute treasure. You have no idea how much you’ve enriched our research library. I would like to hear more about your Detroit work and talk to you about our Frank collection. Thanks so much for your interest in the blog. Let’s keep in touch. Nancy

  3. Hello Nancy, thanks for your note. The DIA was important for me in my youth & I am happy to contribute to it & also to know that there is interest in photography. The work I’ve done in Detroit is mostly of buildings & spaces downtown, Brush Park, up to around the New Center. The images begin as Polaroids which I rephotograph. They are somewhat out-of-focus & lacking in detail. I have done a larger body of work of modernist houses in Los Angeles in a similar manner. The Detroit images are of a lot of abandoned or derelict sites, but they are not meant to be read strictly as such. They are more about me revisiting my memories (I was born in Royal Oak) & finding my memories wrecked, than they are a survey of urban blight. Detroit now looks to me like an industrialized De Chirico painting as much as anything. I showed some of the Detroit images in a show at Momenta Art in Brooklyn curated by Michael Ashkin entitled “Weak Foundations” in 2006. Although it may be a casualty of the economy, I am scheduled to show the Detroit photos in LA in 2010 at a small gallery in Eagle Rock. I am hoping to send some time in Detroit in the latter part of May, to photograph some more & to also visit.

    Is there a date for exhibiting the Frank photos? Would it be possible to view some of the prints in the study room?

    All the best,


  4. Hi again Bernard, I’ll send you an email. It would be great to meet the next time you’re in Detroit. Nancy

  5. i an a photography student in the university, i would like to know more about yuor achievement, and possibly if we can chat.

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