Detroit: A story I never planned on telling

Detroit is now a shell of its former glory.

The following post is drawn from my lecture notes that accompany my presentation on the struggles of Detroit, my birth city. You also can see a PDF version of that PowerPoint. (Note, it may take 20-30 seconds to download.)

My Detroit storytelling project began after I published an essay in a political blog that highlighted the struggles of Detroit, following my visit to the city in April 2015. My piece examined Detroit’s sad decay and my perspective on what I saw throughout my birth city by simply driving through it.

In fact I never intended to tell this story. But it soon became inescapable. It was a story that found me.

While attempting to explore areas near the River Rouge plant, I stumbled on the Delray neighborhood and was dumbstruck by the scale of destruction and decay.

Arson is visible throughout the decaying Delray neighborhood of Detroit, near the River Rouge factory.

My second recent trip in September 2015 included visits to where I briefly lived as a baby and where my biological family lived. I discovered that the home of my biological grandparents had been gutted and leveled in a neighborhood being razed, with many burned out shells that once were middle-class homes.

By 2015, Detroit had already become the poster child of a new documentary photography genre called “ruin porn.” As an outsider, people do have a right question if my work fit this pattern. But who gets to judge?

Photographer/blogger James Griffioen says there are two ways to do it: responsibly and exploitatively: “The few photographers and reporters I met weren’t interested at all in telling the story of Detroit, but instead gravitated to the most obvious (and over-photographed) ‘ruins,’ and then used them to illustrate stories about problems that had nothing to do with the city (which has looked like this for decades). … These photographers were showing up with $40,000 cameras to take pictures of houses worth less than their hotel bills.”

In late 2015 and early 2016, I was unable to find a likely partner to host a lecture and slide show of my work on Detroit. I reached out to every major university in the Portland area and the Multnomah County Library—twice on its part. None bit at my pitch for a free slide show and discussion. Here is the presentation I did share with my coworkers, which took a long view of Detroit’s rise and fall. (Note the PDF file is large and may take 20-30 seconds to full download.)

In my pitch to the library, I wrote: “Detroit, once the nation’s fourth largest city and global center to automobile manufacturing, is now a global icon of deindustrialization and urban decay. Population has fallen from 1.85 million in 1960 to 680,000 today. The city has experienced the country’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. More than eight in 10 residents is African American, following decades of white flight that saw no equal anywhere in the American industrial heartland. With 80,000 abandoned buildings and homes.”

The fierce urgency of the topic was painfully evident to me in late 2015, as one GOP candidate was using issues of decay and the loss of manufacturing jobs as his battering ram to win the White House. As the world saw, those messages changed history in the old manufacturing states of Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. The man who changed history, Donald J. Trump, is now president of the Untied States. Democrats as a party and most liberals failed and still fail to grasp these changes if they live outside of the area.

For those outside of the so-called Rust Belt, including mostly liberal-leaning Portland where I live, Detroit is far away. Detroit’s issues, told through images and data, highlight deep problems in this now African-American city. The role of race and systemic racism are impossible to avoid. That includes how Detroit grew and declined. But it now includes how Detroiters themselves are managing a reality today. And yes, blame is to be found among those who have been in power in the past two decades.

Why Detroit’s Real Decay Matters in the Trump Era

For those who have not been paying attention, Detroit’s evolution into a shell of its greatness is the stage on which billionaire and now president Trump ascended to power.

His phrases could perfectly fit on any highway billboard entering Detroit: “Make America great again” and “We’re going to bring back manufacturing and American jobs.”

By now most Americans have heard those lines, repeatedly, from the most famous person on the planet.

The River Rouge Factory, site of the main production facility in metro Detroit for the Ford Motor Co.

His economic message, made during his successful campaign in Detroit, in the most blunt terms, is a vast critique of the country’s decline. This can be seen spectacularly in the fall of Detroit from a great city to a city that imploded. It is hardly a surprise that Trump successfully attacked the company that made Detroit famous, the Ford Motor Co., during a much publicized feud during the election. Trump won that battle hands down.

No one but perhaps the Ford Motor Co. and its supporters will argue Trump successfully pressured the company to shut down plans to build a new manufacturing facility in Mexico before he even took office and invest its resources back in the United States.

The election battle over American manufacturing is the inevitable outcome of America’s decline as a country with a manufacturing economic base. In 1959 a third of the American workforce was involved in manufacturing; in 2009 that figure was 12 percent. In the same time span, conversely, the percentage of service sector jobs increased by a similar amount. Many people who used to work in manufacturing are now employed as service workers out in the suburbs.

The Economic Policy Institute today notes that the automotive sector still accounts for one in every 22 jobs in the United States. Detroit was particularly dependent on the love affair. In 1950, Detroit’s population hits 1.85 million, making it America’s fourth-largest city, with 296,000 manufacturing jobs.

Who Is to Blame?

Japanese automotive manufacturing plants are widely dispersed in the United States

Today, a typical U.S. made car may now have parts made in Canada, Mexico, and overseas, all linked with just-in-time delivery systems. Foreign manufacturers like Toyota and Volkswagen are now firmly rooted throughout America, particularly in tax-friendly states. Since the 1950s, the Big Three have lost market share to their global competitors for the U.S. market. During recent negotiations now between GM and the UAW, GM threatened to outsource even more parts production to Mexican factories—plans now apparently on hold with Trump in the White House.

A painful visual reminder of the decline of automotive manufacturing is the old Packard Co. factory. Packard began operations in 1903 and closed in 1958, leaving behind it’s once state of the art factory. It remains a shell, now occasionally used for film sets of post-industrial-collapse and dystopian films. Factories no longer have horizontal building design like the closed Packard Plant.

The old Packard Co. plant is now a famous ruin celebrated in dystopian films and documentaries on the Motor City.

The Ford Motor Co. left its original site in Detroit, and Henry Ford located his world-famous River Rouge complex (built on land he purchased for just $10,000) in Dearborn just outside of Detroit. Ford has not built a car or truck in Detroit since 1910.

Today GM’s main assembly plant in Detroit is actually in Hamtramck, a city within the borders of Detroit. Chrysler’s HQ is in Auburn Hills, a suburb. GM is still located in downtown Detroit, though its brand Cadillac just moved to New York.

The Ford Motor Co. left Detroit more than a century ago and located in next-door Dearborn.

It is no coincidence that Henry Ford, the man who helped to put Detroit on the map with mass production, high working-class wages, and assembly line production, also left Detroit in 1910 and relocated to Dearborn. Some argue his model for  middle-class and car-owning, working-class Americans spurred the movement of residents from cities to the suburbs, including in the Detroit area.

Ford’s model called for the centralization, rationalization, and integration of all operations under one roof—fabricate the steal, create the parts, assemble the vehicles, sell to the marketplace. River Rouge was the manifestation of that vision. The original model shifted after the 1940s. Auto companies compartmentalized their operations and moved from the city. They shifted instead to horizontal building configurations. One-story buildings were and still are cheaper to build and maintain.

Who Brought About Decay?

Some blame the United Auto Workers for the downfall of auto manufacturing in the United States, others blame the manufacturers.

In 2011, UAW workers got $58/hour from Ford, $55 from GM, and $52 from Chrysler. After the bailout, a two-tier pay system was implemented for new employees (recently contested in labor negotiations with Fiat Chrysler in Fall 2015). GM alone had $100 billion in pension obligations when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009, not all for union workers/UAW members.

Ford, GM, and Chrysler all relied on SUVs to boost their profitability, and those models spectacularly collapsed during the great recession, leading to bailouts by U.S. taxpayers of Chrysler (now Fiat/Chrysler) and GM. In December 2008, President Bush gave a provisional $17.4 billion bailout to GM and Chrysler. From May through July 2009 Chrysler and GM declared bankruptcy, and the President Obama administration provided financing and guided the automakers through expedited bankruptcy proceedings. A fundamental shift in management-labor relations occurred thereafter.

On Race and Riots:

Detroit has actually had three historic race related riots: 1863 (race related, tied to military draft, 2 dead), 1943 (34 killed, 25 were black), 1967 (43 dead, more than 2,000 buildings burned). That latter was the death knell for many whites determined to leave the city for the suburbs. The last riot followed historic demographic changes. From 1940 to 1970, 4 million blacks moved from the South to urban areas in the North, including Detroit.

The riots in Detroit in 1967 left 43 dead and 2,000 burned buildings. The city never recovered.

Scenes from the 1967 riots that forever changed the city and marked a turning point for white flight. My grandmother and grandfather (biological) moved out of west Detroit to the neighboring suburb of Livonia in 1968, a year after the riot.

As of 2014, Detroit was 83 percent African American, 7 percent white, and about 6 percent Hispanic/Latino of all major ethnic groups.

What About Leadership?

Mayor Coleman Young, the city’s first African American Mayor, has a controversial legacy from 1974 to 1994. The Wall Street Journal squarely blames him for the city’s decline that accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. He is viewed by some, including the Detroit Free Press, for stoking racial flames. The Detroit Free Press however claims he was among the most frugal mayors and avoided debt, unlike his successors. My birth mother remembers him most for his inaction on Devil’s Night in 1989 and not stopping the first outbreak of widespread arson.

Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is best known for his sexting scandal with an aide but also widespread corruption. The Detroit Free Press blames him for pushing it into unprecedented debt: “The greatest damage Kilpatrick did to the city’s long-term stability was with Wall Street’s help when he borrowed $1.44 billion in a flashy high-finance deal to restructure pension fund debt. That deal, which could cost $2.8 billion over the next 22 years, now represents nearly one-fifth of the city’s debt.”

Former Mayor of Detroit and convicted politician Kwame Kilpatrick.

In November 2012, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation allowing for a state appointed financial manager or Chapter 9 bankruptcy for the Motor City. In February 2013, the state described Detroit status as “operational dysfunction” and in need of intervention.

In February 2013, Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as emergency manager. Orr promptly called the city insolvent. Detroit debts totaled $18.5 billion, with twice as many pensioners as workers by this point. In July 2013, Orr filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, the first time ever by a municipality. After court hearings, the state signed bills in June 2014 to move Detroit out of insolvency.

The Detroit Free Press ran a lengthy series on billionaire Dan Gilbert’s connection to lending practices that led to blight in Detroit.

Billionaire Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans and now Detroit real-estate mogul, also is partially blamed by the Detroit Free Press for exacerbating urban blight and the huge foreclosure crisis. Gilbert’s Quicken Loans was central to decay. Since 2000, Wayne County has held one of the world’s largest real estate auctions offering 20,000 properties a year acquired through foreclosure—5 percent of Detroit’s housing stock. The venerable New York Times in 2014 described the city’s plight as post-apocalyptic.

A City Gone Wild

The evidence of arson is omnipresent throughout Detroit. I saw hundreds of torched homes and buildings without really trying to find them. I also saw large numbers of abandoned and in some cases scrapped and pillaged schools, left abandoned because of consolidation, loss of students, and gross mismanagement by Detroit Public Schools (DPS). There were 1,500 suspected arson fires between January and July 2015, according to the Motor City Muckracker blog news site.

A glaring example of that decay can be seen in how the Detroit Public Schools literally left its supplies to rot, much perfectly good (textbooks, supplies, sporting equipment), after a fire. The book repository building was then bought by billionaire Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Maroun, who sealed it tight after famous photos surfaced in the 2008 and 2009. Photos of the repository by photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have now become world famous and synonymous with the city . The images can be found in their seminal work, The Ruins of Detroit.

The Michigan Central Station adorns the cover of the documentary photo book by French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre on the downfall of Detroit, called The Ruins of Detroit. It is a seminal work in photojournalism. It literally helped to spawn a new genre called ruin porn.

Today, many Detroiters are fiercely opposed to downsizing Detroit. In reality, some areas no longer have vital services delivered—water, lighting, public safety, fire protection. They have gone wild.

I remember one moment that captured this reality best during my last trip in late September 2015. I was driving in the center of the city. I needed to find a restroom. There were no facilities anywhere in sight. So I pulled my car over. There was an abandoned lot, with bushes shoulder-high. It looked like raccoons or coyotes could call it home. Not a soul was in sight. I relieved myself. I felt more like I was in an empty woods than a city that used to be the envy of the world.

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Scenes from a wasteland: inside an abandoned Detroit public high school

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

A year ago, in September 2015, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I saw things I could not imagine were possible in the supposedly most powerful country in the world. I toured the city and observed impoverished neighborhoods, shuttered factories, empty homes in every corner of the community, and the omnipresent ruins from arson that have made the Motor City the arson capital of the United States. Detroit had a surreal feel. I called it City of the Future and published several photo essays and a photo gallery on my web site. The most memorable and heart-wrenching place I visited was the now shuttered Crockett Technical High School, at the corner of St. Cyril and Georgia Street.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

In my last photo essay on this gutted and neglected facility of learning, I recounted that Detroit Public Schools (DPS) recently had implemented a painful round of massive school closures, carried out by DPS emergency manager Roy Roberts. In sum, 16 school buildings were closed permanently. In the previous decade, enrollment in the system had fallen 100,000 students, and by 2012-13, enrollment was about a third of what it was a decade earlier.

Death of a school by scrapping and bureaucratic negligence

What I learned during my visit to Crockett from two friendly neighbors who were across the street would have been intolerable in nearly any other major U.S. city. I wrote in my September 2015 photo essay, “They noted that the DPS police did nothing to stop the scrappers once the schools alarm system failed. First the scrappers busted the windows and ripped out the metal. Then they went to work on the interior. One of the men, who said he had lived on that corner much of his life, said he even tried to follow the criminal scrapper and his accomplice once. His calls went unanswered by the school district, he said, and the scrappers did their destruction mostly at night.” The tragedy was compounded, according to one of the neighbors, because the school had been recently fitted with high-speed internet connections to promote a science and technology curriculum.

When I jumped into the old school, I saw newly built science labs completely trashed, eerily similar to how ISIS extremists would destroy monuments of culture and civilization in Iraq and Syria. But in Detroit’s case, the vandals were not crazed religious radicals, they were local residents, scavenging for scrap and destroying either for pleasure, anger, or both.

You can watch this June 2015 Detroit area news report on the scrapping at Crockett–all caught on live footage, with impunity. As one resident trying to protect abandoned public schools said, “How we can we hold off scrappers when we don’t have a license to arrest.”

Who really cares about Detroit’s decline or its public schools?

Today, the DPS is rated the worst in the nation for test scores. In May 2016 The Atlantic reported, “… the country has probably never witnessed an education crisis quite like Detroit’s.” And, then to no one’s surprise and certainly not to anyone in Detroit, no one really gave a crap. What happens in Detroit no longer seems to matter, no matter how awful and absurd.

After my trip to Detroit, I spent about four months trying to get respected Portland universities to host a lecture and photo show (click on the link to see how I presented the concept) on the decline of Detroit and how it looked in 2015. I was turned down by Portland State University, my alma mater Reed College, the University of Portland, and the Multnomah County Library. I made repeated requests to multiple faculty and these organizations.

The topic may just be too depressing or impossible to comprehend. Even worse, the story about mostly black Detroit and its current woes, like the simple destruction of one fine public school by the community itself, did not fit a narrative of race that is preferred many people at this time. A dominant narrative will always defeat an alternative story, particularly one that is rooted in ugly reality. I suspect this yawning disinterest was a combination of all of these factors.

To accept the reality of what Detroit is requires confronting the larger, painful issues about the United States that have not been addressed by our national political system. What we see instead are two candidates vying for the presidency who have used Detroit as a prop and photo-op to tell an economic story that does not resonate with the lives of people struggling in the city. Those two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, know little to nothing about the ordinary people in Detroit and have never stepped into any neighborhood where schools are abandoned, houses are burned, and blocks have gone feral. If one day one of them or any presidential candidate actually visit a place like Crockett, then I will retract this judgement

But let’s be honest. No one running for the nation’s highest office will ever see or want to see the real Detroit.

Note, I published the same essay on my What Beautiful Life photo blog on Sept. 30, 2016.

So, You Want to Know More About the Motor City?

(Ed. Note: Dozens of links are provided below, after the introduction.)

Miichigan Central Station

Miichigan Central Station

Detroit’s unwanted celebrity status nationally and internationally continues to fascinate me. Detroit is now known as a failed American urban experiment. For the more cynical or the painful realists, it represents the dark end to America’s middle-class dream, and the embodiment of the decline of American power and even its civilization.

Detroit rose like a phoenix at the beginning of the 20th century and then experienced the near death of the American automobile industry at the start of the next one, culminating in the taxpayer-funded bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler during the Great Recession. Once the nation’s fourth largest city, the population has fallen from 1.8 million to less than 800,000 in 50 painful years.

Since the violent Detroit riots of 1967 that killed 43 and burned more than 1,000 buildings, the community has transformed into a nearly all-African-American city. Sadly, it now ranks as the country’s murder and arson capital. Multiple factors, well beyond Detroit’s control, spurred these changes. These include white flight and suburbanization, along with national racial politics and globalization.

From a public health perspective, there are not many major cities doing worse. Entire neighborhoods have been vacated. Burnt out shells of homes and businesses dot the urban landscape that now is turning to seed. Nearly half of the city’s children live in poverty. Once glorious buildings that were testament to the confidence in industrial capitalism, notably the ghostly Michigan Central Station, stand vacant as monuments to a past glory. They are our America’s modern-day Roman Colosseum, symbol of a dying or dead empire.

Detroit is also my home town, where some of my family have long roots as Michiganders. It is the place where my life story began, at the intersection of two stories of my adoptive and biological families, who all eventually fled or simply moved away.

To help others understand Detroit Motor City and why it matters, now more than ever, I have compiled some of my favorite links to resources, films, books, and online content that I have uncovered recently. Take a moment to learn more about this famous place that once was the world’s greatest industrial city.

Detroit, Enduring Icon of Decline and “Ruin Porn” CelebrityAndrew Moore Book Cover

  • Detroit Disassembled, photo book by photographer Andrew Moore (highly recommend)
  • The Ruins of Detroit, photo book by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre (highly recommend)
  • James Griffioen, Detroit photographer of decay (recommend)
  • Five Factories and Ruins (web site)
  • Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins, by Dan Austin and Sean Doerr, provides historic and architectural background
  • American Ruins and The New American Ghetto, by Camilo José Vergara, depict dereliction and abandonment in cities like Detroit, Camden, N.J., and Chicago
  • Julia Reyes Taubman, socialite ruin photographer of Detroit and subject of some blowback for photographing decay while protected by a wall of money
  • Detroit 138 Square Miles, website that accompanies photographer Julia Reyes Taubman’s photo book
  • Beautiful Terrible Ruins, art historian Dora Apel examines ways Detroit has become the paradigmatic city of ruins, via images, disaster films and more and notes that the images fail to show actual drivers in the downward spiral, such as globalization, neoliberalism, and urban disinvestment
  • Diehard Detroit, a time lapse video of many of Detroit’s famed architectural ruins, abandoned factories and homes, monuments, buildings, and freeways, with absolutely no perspective on the meaning behind the mayheim, just titilating entertainment with great technique and a cool drone toy (it is stunning visually, and thus classic “ruin porn”)
  • Detroit’s Stunning Architectural Ruins, and Why Documenting Its Faded Glory Matters (an article by the Huffington Post, a liberal blog which exploits unpaid “contributors” more than Henry Ford ever did his factory workers)
  • Urban Ghost Media, photos of the much-photographed and now infamous Eastown Theater

Detroit and Media Coverage

Must-See Detroit Documentary Film: Burn

The great documentary about arson in Detroit and the men who fight it.

The great documentary about arson in Detroit and the men who fight it.

  • Burn, a documentary film by Tom Putman and Brenna Sanchez, tells a year-long story of the year in the life of Detroit firefighters, who battle uncontrolled arson against all odds (amazing filmmaking!!! … from the firefighters interviewed: “That is how you burn a city down. One at a time.”)
  • Interview with filmmakers Putnam and Sanchez on their documentary Burn (great read on scrappy filmmaking with a purpose)
  • The Making of Burn—so, you want to make a great film no one in power gives a crap about, but you have to do it anyway

Must-Read Books on Contemporary Detroit

Detroit, The Former Glory

Pro-Detroit Media Coverage and the “Re-Birth” Branding

Detroit, Industrial IconDiego Rivera Mural, at the DIA

Nice Photo Essays of Before and Now:

Detroit Stories and Research of Interest

Detroit is dying and does this country give a damn?

Broken down Detroit Homes (Photos by Rudy Owens)

The River Rouge neighbhorhood is lined with broken and burned homes, like these.

As a native of Detroit, I present this first of several essays, with a profound sense of sadness. (See my photo blog for my first photo essay.)

Here's the proof if you need it--Michgian verifies I am a Native Detroiter.

Here’s the proof if you need it–Michigan verifies I am a native Detroiter.

It is hard to accept that my birthplace, this once great global city, has become a symbol for American industrial decay and capitalism’s larger ills. At one point, Detroit boasted nearly 2 million residents in the 1950s. Today is barely counts 700,000 residents. [Updated census figures, 5/5/2015.]

In its heyday of bustling industrial production, Detroit served as a global icon for American ingenuity, industrial might, and economic power. During World War II, when the larger metro area produced the country’s war weaponry to defeat the Axis powers, Detroiters proudly called their city the Arsenal of Democracy. In the 1920s and 1930, about 40 percent of all automobiles were manufactured in the Motor City and the Ford River Rouge plant was the world’s largest.

Today, Detroit is known more as the murder capital of the United States, and the arson capital. All told, 90,000 fires were reported in 2008, double New York’s number—for a city 11 times larger—according to Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City is the Place to Be. It is the epitome of racial politics. Binelli notes, 90,000 buildings are abandoned, and huge swaths of the 140-square mile urban area are now returning to nature. Beavers, coyotes, deer, packs of wild dogs, and foxes are now reported in the city.

Photo Courtesy of Detroit Dog Rescue: up to 50,000 wild dogs roam Detroit.

Photo Courtesy of Detroit Dog Rescue: up to 50,000 wild dogs roam Detroit.

I just visited Detroit, and the trip had a more profound impact on me than I was prepared for. How is it that our country could undertake two overseas wars to conquer and rebuild nations—Iraq and Afghanistan—and yet abandon a city that helped to make the country the global power it once was.

National partisan politics have played a role, with Detroit becoming a symbol of the Democratic Party’s failure, as a black city and union city, in the eyes of white and conservative detractors. Then there are NAFTA (pushed by Bill Clinton) and industry fleeing the country for cheaper manufacturing from global suppliers and gross mismanagement of the Big 3 automobile companies, two of whom were bailed out by U.S. taxpayers in 2009.

White flight eventually followed long-simmering racial tensions. There have been Detroit race riots in 1863, 1943, 1967, and 1987. Those riots were stoked by historic racism, redlining, job discrimination, and the building of freeways that helped to destroy America’s inner cities. Today, some criminal fringe actors among Detroit’s mostly black residents are burning what’s left of their own city, for at times just the hell of it.

Burned home Detroit Photo

A burned and destroyed home is a common site. This one is near Livernois and I-75.

Charlie LeDuff, author of Detroit, An American Autopsy, painted a heart-breaking tale of the city’s self-destructive conflagrations through the tales of firemen trying to combat the arsonists. “In this town, arson is off the hook,” said a firefighter to LeDuff. “Thousands of them a year bro. In Detroit, it’s so fucking poor that a fire is cheaper than a movie. A can of gas is three-fifty, and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any movie theaters left in Detroit so fuck it.” (I will do a photo essay of fire-ravaged homes shortly.)

That latest malaise, on top of repeated political scandals and corruption by the city’s bureaucrats and criminal politicians, was a crushing bankruptcy filing in the face of an $18 billion debt. In December 2014, after a year an a half in limbo, a grand bargain was struck with creditors, the city, the state, and private industry that prevented the city from selling its city-owned artwork (Rembrandts, Van Goghs, and more) in the world famous Detroit Institute of Arts.

Diego Rivera Mural DIA

The Diego Rivera Mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts highlights the brutal and still glory days that once were Detroit, the Motor City.

As I wandered the glittering white palace that is the DIA, I wondered, what’s more important, this art or the blocks and blocks of emptied neighborhoods that most of this country has forgotten.

Tweet After Returning to Portland From Detroit
Coming back to Portland was hard. I posted a comment on Twitter as soon as I arrived back home how bizarre it was to be back in the whitest city in North America, Portland, after spending time in the city that America defines as African-American.

The enduring influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher

Photography is a highly personal artistic and communication medium. I have found that those who are successful in this arena achieve that status because their work is clearly recognizable. Success is never by accident, and the photographers I greatly admire remain consistently clear and compelling over time, and usually with great impact on others in the field.

Sebastião Salgado comes to mind for me in the field of visual storytelling with a clear vision. His impact can be seen widely in imitators and co-travellers. The same can be said with the husband-wife duo Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Lime kilns, by Hilda and Bernd Becher.

Lime kilns, by Hilla and Bernd Becher.

The German couple photographed industrial architecture in Europe and North America for nearly 40 productive years, until Bernd’s death in 2007. Their easily recognizable subjects include water towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks, timbered homes, and other industrial features.

The pair published books with their images, grouped together in what they called “typologies,” or sets of images of the same objects from different geographic locations, usually in sets of say nine or 21 images. Each image would be photographed identically, with direct frontal composition, no lens distortions, and with a neutral density skyline that did not distract the viewer from the subject.

These ordered collections had almost no captions and simply conveyed the form of the objects, letting the similarities of the objects communicate the meaning without any of the often absurd and blabbering arts-speak that is usually associated with art and photography commentary. (I imagine the Bechers would find such nonsensical writings absurd.)

Their books of photographs, such as Industrial Landscapes and Typologies of Industrial Buildings, compile their work into compelling sets of images. The influence of their aesthetic can be seen in numerous imitators and students, including this series I found recently on abandoned homes in Detroit.

Toward the end of his career, Bernd taught at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, leading to a crop of photographers and a style of picture-taking that is is known as the “Dusseldorf School of Photography.” Bernd’s well-known and accomplished students include Thomas Ruff and Andres Gursky, one of the most celebrated photographers of the world who has sold the world’s most expensive photographic print.

Bernd and Hilda Becher, Blast Furnaces, at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Blast Furnaces, at the St. Louis Art Museum.

I may have stumbled over the Bechers’ work without knowing it. However, I do recall feeling trapped in a hypnotic trance when I discovered a collection of their blast furnace images, or typology, in the new wing at the St. Louis Art Museum in December 2013.

I felt a deep kinship with their interest in industrical landscapes, perhaps because I grew up in St. Louis and was surrounded by similar forms in a city that was dying as an industrial center during my years there. I also felt a connection because I sensed something profoundly post-World War II about their work.

Their work is distinctly German to me, and their images are imbued with the personal experiences of two people who were in their adolescence during the Nazis’ brutal reign in Germany, when the world turned upside down, where the Holocaust and slave labor on a mass scale were engineered, and where killing and death were woven into the DNA of every German as a result of the country’s destruction that followed the country’s efforts to conquer Europe and beyond. (Bernd was born in 1931 and Hilla in 1934.)

Like it or not, they were a product of that experience, and I can feel it having also traveled widely in Germany on several trips and having studied this period of history intensely.

What is strikingly odd to me is I do not believe I was influenced by either of them. Yet the way I chose to explore my photographic project documenting concentration and death camps in five European countries closely mirrored the style of the Bechers. Even the way I chose to layout my photographs of crematoria, where murdered prisoners bodies were burned, bears an eerily familiar resemblance to the Bechers’ amazing work.

I don’t know what more to make of this except to say that I feel satisfied that my presentation style and methods are not singular. I also feel that the effect of combining similar images of strikingly mundane but complex objects can have greater weight in the format of a typology.

With that heavy photographic pontification complete, I present a screen snapshot of my crematoria series on my web site, followed by two screen snapshots of the Bechers’ typologies that I found online and also captured as a screen snapshot.

Rudy Owens' series on crematoria at Nazi concentration and death camps in Europe.

Rudy Owens’ series on crematoria at Nazi concentration and death camps in Europe.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks.

Screen snapshot of the Bechers' many typologies and series, taken from Google's "image" tool.

Screen snapshot of the Bechers’ many typologies and series, taken from Google’s “image” tool.