Tag Archives: Michigan Avenue

DIA shines a light on Robert Frank’s “Exile on Main Street” right here in Detroit

DIA installation view - Detroit Movie House, 1955, © Robert Frank

My best guess is that Robert Frank took the photograph at right while wandering around somewhere in downtown Detroit along Michigan Avenue. The DIA was lucky enough to get the original, large-scale photographic masterpiece (about 2 x 3 feet) on loan from the artist for the current exhibition Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs, 1955. It is likely he took the photograph, Detroit Movie House, in front of The Loop Theater when he passed through town in July, 1955. Better to see this in person, as this installation view doesn’t do it justice.

The PR overload surrounding the recent re-release of The Rolling Stones’ 1972 Exile on Main Street reminded me as well that Robert was responsible for photographs appearing on original album. On a recent tour of the exhibition, my friend and favorite Detroit rocker Danny Kroha mentioned that Detroit Movie House had actually appeared on the inside cover.

Detail from the inside album cover for Exile on Main Street, 1972, © Rolling Stones Records; Collection of W.M. Watson.

I caught Keith Richards in a rare appearance on late night tv plugging the new Exile super deluxe box edition. But I recently dug up the original from my brother’s vinyl collection, and revisiting it was like discovering a strange old relic. In an age of obsessive multi-tasking, the act of solely listening to records and looking at album covers and liner notes is a distant, lost art for most of us. It’s a shame too because through Exile on Main Street, I saw the photographs of Robert Frank for the first time. And it wouldn’t be until years later that I would find out about his films, including Frank’s documentary about The Stones, as well as his book The Americans.

1961 cover for the New Lost City Ramblers with photo by Robert Frank; courtesy http://www.folkways.si.edu

More music trivia on the Robert Frank front came courtesy of Mr. Kroha, who remembered that Frank took the cover photograph for The New Lost City Ramblers album back in 1961. The band continued to use his photographs for a number of other albums and later compilations. I wasn’t surprised since by the 1950s, Robert had established close ties to musicians as well as writers, painters and other photographers who lived in New York City and elsewhere. In fact, Ramblers’ band member John Cohen shot stills for a number of Frank’s films over the years – there’s one on view in the exhibition from the set of Pull My Daisy, a film Robert made with writer Jack Kerouac in 1959.

Readies guitarist Danny Kroha setting the record straight about Ford's versus Oldsmobiles

Readies guitarist Danny Kroha setting the record straight about Fords versus Oldsmobiles; photo courtesy of Elizabeth Kroha

Robert Frank loaned a few other  photographs to the exhibition including a picture of a broken down car, presumably his 1950 Ford Coupe which failed in downtown Detroit. But the photo actually shows a 1947 Oldsmobile – the grill was a dead give away and confirmation came from a quick web search on iPhone in the gallery. I later double checked with Robert and heard back that the automobile was, indeed, not the artist’s, who mentioned, “my car wasn’t that nice.”

Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs, 1955, is open and free with museum admission through Saturday, July 3, 2010.

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.