Detroit: 138 Square Miles: Elegance, Rust & Soul

“The photographer – and the consumer of photographs – follows in the footsteps of the ragpicker, who was one of Baudelaire’s favorite figures for the modern poet.” –Susan Sontag, On Photography

Julia Reyes Taubman worked in semi-seclusion on her Detroit photography project for nearly seven years and after almost 40,000 photographs she’s assembled her first book with the help of former Detroit Free Press art critic Marsha Miro and book designer Lorraine Wild, a former Detroiter who endowed the book with its visual rhythms and understated focus. Wild is one of  top book designers in the country –and her style and artful eye brings the book to life.

Wild builds up a subtle narrative and pacing structure for the mammoth 488 page book, framing the images into an almost cinematic jigsaw puzzle, from its 1970s’ conceptual-art tone cover with it’s dark burnished industrial-edged spine to its chapter divisions cataloged into East, Central and Western regions. Photographs are often strung together into clusters like a small Greek chorus gathered together by type, size or setting. Page layouts bounce off each other, overlapping and mirroring forms. Some pages extend into one another with their borders continuing the skylines and horizons, areas of pure white acting like rest stops along the way. There is visual music and poetry in large evidence, the brilliance of the design sculpting the project into the category of “book as art object.”

Beginning with the East is a shot of the Detroit river, the star, life-blood and namesake of the city. It’s a mysterious washed-out photograph, shrouded in fog and drifting off the page like the numinous seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto, balanced on the edge of life or death. The book moves forward and westward like a child taking its first steps, slowly, carefully, opening its eyes.

Punctuated by visual mysteries and alien landscapes, (a chair perched in a tree, an odd telephone glued to a tall pole, blue snaky hoses in a forest swamp, dark windowless biker bars, stained crack-house mattresses, gang graffiti and bizarre rubbish piles, homes turned inside-out) the book casts a mythic labyrinthian quality as it passes through gray overcast winter skies, skeleton tree branches and snow covered grass. The quietly surreal, bluesy and lonely nature of Detroit  creates the perfect backdrop and  subject matter for photographic inquiry.

Detroit: 138 Square Miles reads like a visual journey through the scarred backsides and forgotten wastelands of humanity, a spiritual quest through small neighborhoods, infernos, architectural gems, seedy bars and secret locations. Photos from a low-flying airplane splash across the page like exclamation points, revealing powerful rarely seen views of the city, showing in detail the vastness of its rusted arterial and organic nervous system.

In her 1953 non-fiction masterpiece, The Pleasure of Ruins, the late novelist Rose McCauley wrote, “Ruin is always over-stated; it is part of the ruin-drama staged perpetually in the human imagination, half of whose desire is to build up, while the other half smashes and levels to the earth.” This volatile mixture of the sublime and ordinary, the historic and powerless, the built up and smashed, ignites an arresting condition for the photographer and viewer. The imagination is stirred by the contemplation of ruins as we cast ourselves inside the post-apocalyptic future of the present. History is never completely preserved or frozen by photographs. We are left with tracings from the past, fragments that form an ephemeral reality beyond our reach. As observers we are caught inside the poetic conundrum of the ruin and the photograph, a state in constant change, dissolution, romanticism and recovery.

Detroit: 138 Square Miles is equally an autobiography and diary about its maker, as it is a love letter to the city. Taubman’s appreciation of modernist buildings and formalism are noted in abundance and are set off alongside her rock ‘n roller aesthetic. The photographer’s fascination with outsiders, criminals urban hipsters and loners connect and syncopate with the outgrown wilderness of the city. The story also unfolds how an artist crafts an identity from their surroundings. The city’s isolation and despair is gently opened up and contrasted by public parks, museums, rock concerts, sports arenas, architectural details and little known neighborhood folk-art curiosities. Taubman’s shared journey is not unlike Baudelaire’s conception of the flânuer: “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world…”  -not just a crash course on Detroit but also a compendium of a magical kind, a private index with its own unique codes, style and purpose.

Detroit: 138 Square Miles includes a warm reflective introduction by local legend Elmore “Dutch” Leonard. He states, “The reason I’m still here must lie in Julia’s pictures… there is beauty in despair and sometimes a glimmer of hope. ” – and in Jerry Herron’s introductory essay “Living With Detroit”,  he states, “.. the truth of this place is not something you say or take home in an image, but something you do and keep on doing until you become part of the design.” Detroit citizens have an undying passion for their city and its history, reflected in a flood of Detroit-centered books recently published. Generous footnotes next to thumbnail prints in the back of the book fill in details and background history forming a well captioned book-inside-a-book. The printing quality compares with the best of any fine-art photography book published today and is destined to add significantly to the discussion on ruins and the post-apocalyptic cities we inhabit. This latest addition makes a handsome cornerstone to any collection on or about Detroit.

The last photograph in the book is the gravestone of the great bluseman Son House who spent his final years in semi-obscurity working as a janitor in the Old Main building at Wayne State University, his Dry Spell Blues could be a fitting epitaph and accompaniment to the photographs:

“It has been so dry, you can make a powder house out of the world

Well, it has been so dry, you can make a powder house out of the world

And holler money mens, like a rattlesnake in his coil

I throwed up my hands, Lord, and solemnly swore

I have throwed up my hands, Lord, and solemnly swore

Well, ain’t no need of me changing towns, it’s the drought everywhere I go

It’s a dry old spell everywhere I been

Oh, it’s a dry old spell everywhere I been

I believe to my soul this old world is bound to end..” Dry Spell Blues, Son House

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