By now, almost everybody in metro Detroit has heard of "ruin porn." Underneath that "ruin porn" criticism lies the allegation that Detroit's decaying Beaux Arts skyscrapers and empty industrial hulks are being exploited for leering audiences that revel in just how far Detroit's fortunes have fallen. The term all but accuses photographers of taking the hard realities of disinvestment and turning them into an unwholesome peep show.
While the term has come in handy for blasting photographic work that mines the city's dilapidation for a bit of shock value, it might have been better if pornography hadn't entered into the discussion. After all, even Supreme Court justices have questioned just where pornography ends and art begins. Certainly, some of those who have shot photos of inner-city abandonment have created high art or dispassionate documentation, such as Bruce Giffin or Camilo José Vergara. Their work stands out because it's done with affection, even love, of the places prosperity left behind. In some photographers' able hands, what some might call "ruin porn" becomes something magical, something moving.
For instance, a new exhibition of photos by landscape photographer Bill Schwab is visually arresting, even beautiful, while presenting the hard realities of Detroit's descent. It's something that's hard to do right, and Schwab spent months scouting out locations for his new body of work. It's quite an accomplishment, and it offers a haunting photographic record of the city's twilight between what it was and what it will become.
Schwab is no stranger to Detroit. His great-grandfather had a studio in Detroit a century ago. While he's done his share of globe-trotting, leading groups of photographers everywhere from Northern Michigan to Iceland to the Faroe Islands, his body of work includes imagery of Detroit: In the past, Schwab created images of Detroit with a noirish style. He did a photo book showcasing the beauty of Belle Isle. And yet the subject matter of a ruined city was almost too charged for him to try to take on.
"A lot of people over the years have been saying, 'Hey, why don't you get back to your Detroit stuff?' ... And it's been a real struggle of mine to come to terms with the way that I was going to actually do this."
The proper impetus finally arrived in November of last year, when what remained of the SS Ste. Claire, better known as the boat that ferried Detroiters to the amusement park on Boblo Island, was docked somewhere in Detroit.
Schwab saw the story of the vessel's return, figured out where it was docked, and took a camera to photograph it at night.
"I hadn't been out in Detroit shooting at night in a long time," Schwab says of the shoot. "We went there and I came over the bridge and there it was, exactly where I thought it would be. It was kind of a foggy, misty night. It was overwhelming. As a photographer, when I'm photographing a landscape, a lot of times, it's a physical energy that you get when you start feeling it. It's almost like something passes through you or is given to you. It gives it up. That night I had that feeling in this extreme way. It was amazing. I went back and waited for that one night of snow. I pulled back a bit, and framed it in that way with the trees, and before I'd even pushed the shutter it had become this iconic thing for me."
Obviously a time exposure, given a bit of a blur in some of the branches, the photo looks much like the photos of 100 years ago, when the ship was new. You can almost imagine it as a vintage shot of a ship being refitted after wartime service.
The shoot left a deep impression on Schwab.
"I thought, 'I grew up in Detroit. I have great memories of that boat. And I have so many friends who have memories of that boat," he says. "And I started thinking: This is where we all were. At some point, everybody of a certain age had been on that boat ... It just got me thinking about the neighborhoods."
It turned into a project that lasted many months, with him stealing night shots of the streets. "There's something about it at night," he says, "because it's stripped of people and you're alone and you're seeing it. And it just starts to do a lot more things to you."
This new body of work represents a break from Schwab's earlier photography. He was exclusively a black-and-white photographer who worked in film, and he describes suddenly shooting digital and in color as "a bit of a jump for me."
"I just decided that, for the type of work I wanted to do, film would put too many limitations on that. With digital, I can make it look more like your naked eye would see it than a piece of film would." He decided not to do the shoot as a "gadget guy" — no filters, one lens, one camera, one tripod, and no extra battery. As Schwab puts it: "One view the whole time." The sole concession to analog is that the prints are made old-school, by running the digital files through chemistry.
While his images do show some urban decay, they often show signs of the people who still live there: Windows are illuminated, tire treads are crunched into the snow, porch lights still beckon callers, old walls are adorned with street art. Even when the subject is a vacant street, there are undeniable details showing that somebody loved a place enough to decorate it with architectural grace notes, now fading. It gives the work an ice-cold whisper of melancholy breezing through it.
"I didn't want to show just this desolation," Schwab says. "Detroit had this thing that's palpable, I just can't describe it. It's all about the history. There's just something about Detroit. We all have our roots here. These are all neighborhoods I've known all my life. We all have our grandparents who worked at the car factories ... I was looking at it in a romantic way, and I would dare to say I still am looking at it in that romantic way, with a love. It's an amazing place."
That indescribable quality came through loud and clear to those who viewed Schwab's work as he posted it online while shooting.
"It was the first time I had ever done that," he says. "And I started getting this incredible outpouring from people who were from here. That's where Where We Used to Live came from, because it seemed like everybody who was talking to me had been here, even though they and their family no longer were here ... This woman picked me up off Instagram, told me there was this great little gallery in Toronto."
The project seems to have left him feeling more passionate than ever about the city, as well as a way to pose that question to a larger, international audience.
"What are we going to do?" he asks. "We are watching the ruralization of Detroit. There's 4 to 7 square miles of Detroit that's being really worked on. From what I'm seeing so far, it's helping a few people who've got some money and are able to invest — and God love them for doing it — but ... none of that seems to be coming back into the neighborhoods."
"That tends to be an old argument around here," he adds, "but it's no less valid, I think."
The opening of Detroit: Where We Used to Live runs 6:30-9:30 p.m. Sept. 24, at Charlotte Hale Gallery, 588 Markham, Toronto, Ontario. The show exhibits until Oct. 8. For more information, see billschwab.com.