Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre – Ruins of Detroit

Copyright Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre 2010 courtesy of Steidl

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have assembled an exquisite photographic collection of urban debris. Like modern-day archeologist, they have found a contemporary and abandoned ruin, of which they have the luxury to document the discarded remnants. The framing of their subject has strong aesthetic and graphic undertones, with careful attention to balance, movement, mass, line, and light. There is a generous mix of grand overviews, midrange “environmental portraits” and close up studies.

The place depicted is the Midwest city of Detroit, a.k.a. “Motor City”, located in the Southeast corner of the state of Michigan. By far from being unique, it is actually one of many urban places in the United States where economic changes were better handled by just walking away. What is unique to Detroit is the central location of urban deterioration. How this urban ruin came about is beyond the scope of this review, but the Introduction by Thomas Sugrue rings true. I should know, I grew up in the Northern shadows of this once great city, but left in the early 1970’s as the great Detroit decline was just obtaining a strong foothold.

In a sad sort of way, this photobook triggers many bittersweet and melancholic memories. The photograph at the end of the book of the destruction of the old “Tiger” stadium, after construction of the new stadium, does not seem in full conceptual alignment with the underlying decay of the residential areas. Nevertheless, the old stadium is emotional linked to my awareness of the game of baseball, which bloomed during a sultry Michigan summer on our local sand lots and I remember with great excitement my Dad taking us to my first double-hitter at “Tiger” stadium. The photographs of the decaying Cass Tech are ironic, as during my high school days we were always in awe of Detroit’s Cass Tech (High School) as having leading edge technology and although there is a new Cass Tech school, the old facilities were just abandoned, much as the obsolete auto factories, as though no lessons have been learned.

Unlike other “natural disasters” such as the hurricane Katrina and the devastation and havoc that were endured by New Orleans, (Chris Jordan, “In Katrina’s Wake” comes immediately to mind), the deterioration of this region of Detroit in comparison is a slow motion death march, perhaps similar to the rural farm conditions of Eugene Richards “The Blue Room” or the Third World disposable industrial factories of Christoph Lingg’s “Shut Down”. Like most projects that are created in a documentary style, the selection and framing of their subjects is not meant to portray all of Detroit, but only this area when the winds of change were at its worst, the perfect storm of these hard hit neighborhoods and factories.

Their photographs are created with a large format camera using an extensive depth of field, thus most of their subject matter is clearly seen, revealing a ponderous amount of details. Similar to the detached photographs of the New Topographics which was subsequently taken to the next level with the decaying and abandoned industrial facilities of Bernd and Hilla Becher, there is an aloof and distant feeling to these photographs, almost too cool and calculating in their documentary style. As with the photographers of New Topographics and the Becher’s, there is an absence of people in the photographs, as though they have vanished. To be fair, for most of the interior locations the photographers featured, no reasonable person would probably want to be there amidst the decay and destruction.

This project for me begs the many questions, what is our fascination with death and destruction? Why does traffic back up adjacent to a roadside accident, while everyone who drives by has their heads hanging out their car windows, staring at the bloody carnage and mangled wrecks? Is this a reality check on our own mortality? Is this a project that is akin to attending a fright movie, a dark and gruesome narrative that we want to experience from a far distance? Are we only too glad that this state of disrepair is their issue and not ours? We can wonder, how did this happen, to walk away from a what we would think is a prefect fine and functional building at some point, to allow the deterioration to set in and not respond? What are the economics that can allow someone to just walk away and build anew, versus reinvest in what infrastructure is already in place? Perhaps these are questions that are not easily answered, as there is a complex web of circumstances that resulted in a perfect storm that descended upon this area of Detroit.

I do find that Marchand and Meffre’s photographs capture a fascinating look at what should be considered the ultimate downside of poor and abusive urban planning.

As a photobook object, this is a massive and ponderous coffee-table edition and takes a fair amount of heft to move it about. I found that in reading, it was best suited to lie on my lap. Similar to all of the Steidl books, the printing is beautiful and exquisite; the semi gloss paper almost appears as though there is a spot varnish on the color photographs that really allows a vibrant range of colors. The printed cloth covers have a little nap to them, conveying a muted range of colors, but similar in nature to the worn and discarded books that are at various times the subject of this book.

by Douglas Stockdale

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