A little Detroit in San Francisco

Despite my promise to return to my trip home, I had to write about this exhibition I just saw. So here’s a brief (who am I kidding, I can’t be brief) photoless post – you’ll have to follow the links to see pictures!

Tonight, I attended the opening of a great show at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco: “American Beauty,” works by photographer Philip Jarmain. The show features his photography of many ruined, abandoned, and decaying buildings in Detroit, but at least one that is currently under renovation (the Whitney Building). The prints are huge—4×6 and 5×7 feet, the exhibition description says. (I didn’t bring a tape measure to the gallery.) Jarmain, whose day job is in advertising photography, shot these images using a large-format camera (which is about all I can repeat, my knowledge of the technical aspects of photography being embarrassingly small for having lived with a photographer for 8 years).

I walked in just slightly late but still able to join a tour of the photos led by Detroiter and photographer Sean Doerr, who seems to have a pretty encyclopedic as well asintimate knowledge of these buildings. Jarmain was also present, and I was fortunate to be able to chat with both of them a bit after the tour.

Of course we all know by now that when photos of modern, and especially urban, ruins are being discussed, the potential charge of “ruin porn” has to be acknowledged. [I’ll wait while you groan a little. Actually, I’ll groan with you.] These images do not fit that category. They are contemplative, not voyeuristic. Thanks to their large size, and the skill with which Jarmain has treated color, light, and shadow, the buildings in the photographs assert their presence with a brilliance reminiscent of a religious icon. The comparison is apt. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes that “beauty does not ‘essentialize’ (essences are supremely anaesthetic), but remains always at the surface…it is the ‘eloquence’ of being, which reveals being’s gratuity.” [David Bentley Hart. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003), 141.] While Hart is not writing specifically on icons in that passage, the pride of place he gives to the surfaces of things is also key to the Orthodox tradition of icons [on this, see Bissera V. Pentcheva, “The Performative Icon,” The Art Bulletin, 88 (2006), 631-55).]

Even I didn’t anticipate quoting David Bentley Hart and referencing icons when I started writing this post. Hmm.

While the images remind me of some of the work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre—who sought “to watch [the ruins] one very last time…wondering about the permanence of things”—Jarmain has photographed Detroit’s decaying buildings not as ruin qua ruin, but as architecture. As such, the compositions are staid, the subjects stately. Standing before them, the viewer is presented with rich details that would be easy to miss at the actual location unless one really looked, really made her or himself fully present and attentive to the site. These buildings are not the mere objects to which pornography of any type would reduce its subjects. They are Other, in the sense of Martin Buber‘s “Thou.” The viewer is easily encouraged by these photos to approach the subjects much like the photographer must have—without, or at least being willing to let go of, preconceptions or preconditions. And even though decaying or ruined buildings reveal something of their inner structure, in these photos you will not find “the skull beneath the skin,” but rather a woundedbut dignified, even graceful, work of architecture. The sort of superficial beauty Hart has commended.

Speaking to Wired, Jarmain emphasized his interest in the buildings themselves, and in their history, saying that his intent was to “document [them] carefully and with craft,” so that the viewer can enjoy their amazing architectural details. According to the Wired article, he “sees his work as optimistic and uplifting.” (Do read that article.)

Tomorrow (Sunday, 7 Sept 2013), his collaborator Sean Doerr will present a lecture—which, to be honest, I’m a little bitter I can’t attend—titled, “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus – Quoting from the Past to Question the Present.” Such an evocative title! It’s kinda a Detroit thing to forget the past, but in recent years, Detroiters—native and new—have been taking more of an interest in the city’s history. Questioning the present is a vital step toward building the future, and the past holds many clues. The built environment is a great place to start, because it was produced by, adapted by, and has housed so much history. It both reflects and shapes how people live and think.

I can’t help but hope that those “with eyes to see” the beauty and dignity in ruined buildings will bring a much-needed mode of thinking to the process of reinventing Detroit—or even the idea of a city in the 21st century. So go see these photos, online if you can’t go in person, and train your eyes. Take a moment to virtually dwell in these richly textured spaces, and let them impress something of themselves into your imagination.

Jarmain mentioned to me that his motivation is to get discussions going, and that for him, the photos are about story-telling. So in that spirit, please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below. What stories do you have about the places included in the show?

I learned, after exploring inside it in 1998, that my great-grandfather, a carpenter, worked on the Michigan Central Station. His sister was an organist. I know from family history that she played in various churches but also in the “movie palaces” around Grand Circus Park. As I looked at the photographs of theatres featured in this show, I couldn’t help but wonder…did she play there, this great-great aunt I never met?

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2 thoughts on “A little Detroit in San Francisco

  1. Hauntingly beautiful photos in the exhibition, I can only imagine their impact on a grand scale instead of my silly iPhone screen. Although you were, in essence, reporting on a photographic exhibit without offering one photo, before I clicked the links I had a vivid picture in mind from your often poetic words. I really enjoyed reading this, thank you!

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