The Ruins of Detroit: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

The advance hype for this year’s parade of Super Bowl TV commercials, for the most part, exceeded the hipness quotient of the actual commercials. It’s a challenge to come off as cutting edge when it costs more than two and a half million dollars to buy a 30 second spot. The big exception was Chrysler’s two-minute paen to the indefatigable spirit of a once great American city—a tour of Motor City from the POV of a new Chrysler 200, driven by that paragon of hip, rapper Marshall Mathers.

The decline of Detroit has loomed high on America’s radar even before Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger and Me. The opening scene of Godfrey Reggio’s documentary Naqoyqatsi (Life as War) is a montage of tracking shots of the exterior and interior of Detroit’s Central Station, a fabled railroad station built in the style of a Roman bathhouse. Its Beaux-Arts architecture was the tallest railroad station in the world when it opened for service in 1913; it was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1975. This is what it looks like today.

Detroit’s Central Station.
Detroit Central Station, Waiting Hall.

These are two of the near two hundred full-page color photos made by two young French photographers (still in their 20s), Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre; they work as full collaborators. According to architectural photographer Robert Polidori, who wrote the forward to their recent book, The Ruins of Detroit, Romain is the one who finds and sets the shots, framing them. Yves assumes the technical aspects of image making, such as focus and exposure. This reflects their respective educational backgrounds. In college, Romain was a student of Literature and Yes of electronics.

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

Amazon.com—Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre: The Ruins of Detroit link

A closer look at the ruins of Central Station is in this video from the Reggio film. The opening image truck-in is of Pieter the Elder Brueghel’s 1563 painting of the Tower of Babel.

The two photographers met in 2003; they had already documented many architectural ruins when they discovered the mother lode of detritus—a crumbling Detroit. First in and around Paris and later in the United States, photographing closed and abandoned theaters, film and stage, the pair of photographers produced several remarkable books. Being French, they of course clothed their work not merely in the visual aesthetic of an American like Walker Evans (a taciturn man of few words) but in the cant of Gallic criticism:

The state of ruin is essentially a temporary situation that happens at some point, the volatile result of a change of era and the fall of empires. Ruins are a fantastic land where one no longer knows whether reality slips into dream or whether, on the contrary, dream makes a brutal return into the most violent of realities. Therefore, they appear to be a natural and sublime demonstration of our human destinies and of their paradoxes, a demonstration of our creative and self-destructive vanities. A decisive moment in which one could suddenly catch a glimpse of his condition past, present and future at once.

French indeed. I wonder if they would care to explain this interpretation of their work to Eminem. As an American antidote to this view of Detroit, here is the Chrysler/Eminem Super Bowl ad that instantly went viral on YouTube.

Eminem and the ad’s filmmakers already know that we know the Detroit of Marchand and Meffre—or they think that we think we know. The reality is quite another thing. Eminem portrays a hopeful image of Detroit rising phoenix-like from its ashes; there are signs that, beyond the subtle plug for a new car, he may be right. In any case, the “never say die” and “can do” determination of America is brought to the fore in this commercial. It is no accident that it draws on powerful images from the mythic past of this once great city that between 1900 and 1920 rose from 13th to 4th position in population.

Scholar Thomas J. Sugrue provides an historical context for the photographs. His chapter also incorporates a dozen photos that illustrate the rise of Detroit’s industrial might:

Hundreds of thousands of workers—seeking well-paid and secure jobs in the automobile industry—flooded into the city. The auto firms also recruited workers from around the world. Henry Ford found skilled artisans in Scotland and Ireland and common laborers in places as diverse as Lebanon and Mexico. Displaced farmers from the American South flooded into the city, with hopes of finding work in Detroit’s factories, including many African-Americans, who became the city’s visible minority. At Detroit’s peak in the early 1959s, the city was home to nearly two million people.

Sugrue continues with an incisive analysis of the racial issues that split areas of Detroit, ultimately leaving a poor central core of blacks ringed by what he calls a suburban “white noose.” Of course, none of this is germane to the images themselves, but in America race is the singular issue that defines almost everything, even today. There are no human faces, black or white, in the photographs but they are portraits, nonetheless.

The final sequence of the Chrysler ad shows Eminem entering a restored downtown theatre on Woodward Avenue, the Fox Theater—walking down the aisle and onto the stage, as a robed African-American choir sings. The 5000 seat Fox opened in 1928 as the world’s first sound-on-film cinema palace for William Fox’s Movietone Talkies. It also has a 36 rank Wurlitzer organ.

Several theaters and ballrooms photographed by Marchand and Meffre were not so lucky.

United Artists Theater.
The Ballroom, American Hotel.
The Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel.

During the Chrysler commercial’s opening driving montage, 33 seconds in, there are several quick cuts to the Diego Rivera fresco murals that cover the four walls of the garden court of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, an art installation that was commissioned in 1932 by Edsel Ford. The Mexican muralist and his wife, painter Frida Kahlo, spent nearly a year painting a 27-panel fresco of American industry and of the American worker. The murals were heroic in scale and ambition. Ford had little understanding that this commission would unleash a firestorm of protest. Rivera was a polarizing figure, not because of his art but because of his politics. An avowed Communist at a time when American industry felt threatened by labor unrest and the depression, efforts were made to destroy the murals, all-unsuccessful, as Edsel Ford stood by them. Rivera’s similarly themed murals at NYC’s Rockefeller Center were in fact painted over when the artist refused to remove a portrait of Lenin. In Detroit, the canny Rivera included portraits of Henry and Edsel Ford.

Henry Ford by Diego Rivera.
Edsel Ford by Diego Rivera.

Nor did he neglect a pensive portrait of an American worker sitting quietly apart from the storm of activity that almost explodes off the walls.

Worker by Diego Rivera.
North wall, Rivera Mural.

The north and south walls of this gallery represent the best surviving celebration of the American worker and the American industrial might in an era before the Second World War, when a rising tide of American manufacturing might swept over a world not yet fully recovered from the deprivations of its first global war.

South Wall, Rivera Mural.

Precisionist painter-photographer Charles Sheeler was another artist hired by Ford to document the Dearborn River Rouge plant, which was then manufacturing the Ford V-8. The blocks long plant was almost a self-contained city. Sheeler’s nearly three dozen multiple exposure montage photos with criss-crossed conveyors have become iconic images of American industrial photography.

Charles Sheeler, Ford River Rouge Plant.

This is the history of American industry might against which the two young French documentarians have unravelwd the myth of triumphalism.

Fisher Body Plant #21.

As Detroit’s vaunted might began to unravel, and as the workforce was downsized and outsourced at the end of the last century, the consequences percolated throughout the entire city, even into its churches and classrooms.

East Methodist Church.
Classroom, St. Margaret Mary School.
Biology Classroom, Wilbur Wright High School.

Some of their most emotional images are not of large-scale buildings, but of single rooms within those buildings.

Room 1504, Lee Plaza Hotel.

Even more forlorn is the central atrium, once a hive of activity, of a prosperous business, now a desiccated skeleton.

And no image can tell the tale of lost hopes and abandoned ventures more than the empty, rusted out safe deposit boxes in a bank vault.

It is in images like this last half dozen that the human dimension of the loss comes home to you. Large buildings are inexpressive, however grand in scale. However, a battered, broken piano in a school classroom can break your heart.

Piano, St. Albertus School.

In an April, 2009 NPR story host Steve Inskeep walks through a Detroit neighborhood and gives a rich word portrait of the efforts of several intrepid Detroiters’ efforts to rehabilitate abandoned properties. Bob and Maureen Kraemer have invested in a landmark building, the Broderick Towers. Andrew Fox has bought 32 homes, fixed them up and rents them. Inskeep is with him when they discover another abandoned home. Here is a wonderful American story of potential, of “never say die.”

NPR.org—“Architects, Rehabber Find Riches In Detroit Ruins” link

Eminem’s Chrysler may even cruise down these mean streets at any moment—Imported from Detroit.

Next week: What exactly constitutes the "still life" in photography? A look at a recent exhibition at the Getty---and considerations beyond.

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