Site logo

New York Times: Capturing the Idling of the Motor City

Courtyard, Cass Tech HS
The New York Times reviews Detroit Disassembled at the Queens Museum of Art

Enlarge This Image

21DETROIT2-articleInline
Fred Conrad/The New York TimesAndrew Moore More Photos »

RISING nearly 20 stories above the surrounding neighborhood in southwest Detroit, Michigan Central Station is an imposing leviathan of another era. The disembarkation point for countless Motor City migrants seeking a decent wage in Henry Ford’s factories, it was Detroit’s Ellis Island for the journey toward middle-class life.

Today, however, the Beaux-Arts depot is a forlorn, modern-day Cheops. The last train left the station in 1988, with rail a victim of the city’s automotive industry, itself now a shell of its former glory. In a 2008 picture by the New York photographerAndrew Moore, the station’s once-opulent waiting room looks as if it had been abandoned eons earlier. Its defaced marble pillars appear ancient, while fallen tiles and debris resemble Moon rocks peeking through a dingy white blanket of snow.
The chilly tableau is the frontispiece of Mr. Moore’s 2010 book “Detroit Disassembled” (Damiani/Akron Art Museum) and the initial image in a show of his work at the Queens Museum of Art, which opens next Sunday. Originally exhibited by the Akron Art Museum, the 30 Detroit photos Mr. Moore shot in 2008 and 2009 occupy an entire floor of the Queens Museum. An upstairs gallery features selections from his previous projects documenting the faded splendor of Cuba, post-Soviet Russia and Robert Moses’ New York City legacy, to provide context for the Motown work and prove “that I didn’t just show up in Detroit and take pictures of decayed buildings,” Mr. Moore said with a smile.
Unlike his work in Russia and Havana, Mr. Moore’s Detroit photos are largely devoid of people, giving them an eerie, postapocalyptic feel. Evidence charts from a murder investigation are among files strewn across a shuttered police station. Beakers and test tubes line the shelves of a chemistry lab in a former school, waiting for students who will never come. Birch saplings sprout from rotting textbooks at a school book depository. A vacant home is swallowed whole by foliage. Once-bustling neighborhoods dissolve into urban prairie.
“There are hundreds of possible books that can be made about Detroit,” Mr. Moore, youthful looking at 54, said in an interview in his compact, book-lined Chelsea studio. “But what I was focused on was the idea that in an urban setting you could also have a landscape happening, the forces of nature intersecting with American urbanism, the process of decline also intersecting with the revival of nature.”
Barbara Tannenbaum, the curator of photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art, who organized the “Detroit Disassembled” show while she was at the Akron Art Museum, likened his Detroit photographs to Piranesi’s 18th-century prints of Roman ruins and Caspar David Friedrich’s 19th-century paintings of crumbling churches. “Artistically they’re very important in the way that they combine the almost romantic sense of horror with beauty,” she said. “That dissonance between the beauty and the sense of waste and destruction and decay leads you to really consider not just the situation of Detroit but to put them in a larger context of the rise and fall of civilizations, the relationship between human endeavors to build and nature’s ability to overwhelm and overcome.”
A Connecticut native, Mr. Moore moved to New York in 1980, living near South and John Streets in Lower Manhattan. At night he would wander the neighborhood taking pictures of the construction of the South Street Seaport, which kindled an interest in documenting “life in flux,” he said. “I like places in transformation, the process of becoming and changing.”
He eventually expanded his vision to places like Bosnia and Vietnam. “I have a perpetual fascination with certain kinds of decayed spaces that have been reappropriated or reused or where the evidence of people struggling to keep their dignity lingers, places that have been abandoned but retain the ghosts of what they were,” he said, citing earlier images like a dilapidated Havana opera house that found new life as a bicycle-taxi garage.
It was Detroit’s central role in the creation of modern life — “a symbol of our greatness,” Mr. Moore said — that initially attracted him to the city as potential subject matter. He spent time there when he worked as the cinematographer and producer of “How To Draw a Bunny,” a 2002 documentary about the Detroit-born artist Ray Johnson, but he was unaware of the scope of the area’s abandonment: tens of thousands of derelict buildings, from prewar skyscrapers to immense factories to ornate movie palaces. In 2008, however, Mr. Moore was invited by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, two young French photographers familiar with his shots of old theaters, to join them on a shooting excursion to Detroit, a destination for the pair since 2005. Inspired by what Mr. Moore called “the spirit of exploration and discovery and trying to get into places that nobody had seen pictures of,” the group lugged their large-format cameras around town together.
They were joined by locals like Sean Doerr, a teenager who had explored hundreds of vacant Detroit buildings, while Mr. Moore used his professional contacts to gain access to sites like the original Model T plant, which had been off limits for decades. The group’s forays produced three books in the last year: Mr. Moore’s “Detroit Disassembled”; “Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins,” which features Mr. Doerr’s photographs; and Mr. Marchand and Mr. Meffre’s “Ruins of Detroit.” This publishing mini-flurry induced a wave of media attention, not all of it positive.
Some people, including many Detroit residents, decried the images as “ruin porn” — urban decay as empty cliché, smacking of voyeurism and exploitation — and critical takedowns ran in The New Republic and the online journalGuernica. The musician Jack White, a Detroit native, told a radio interviewer that the countless photographs of Michigan Central Station were “immortalizing tragedy” and urged people to stop taking them.
“There’s so much more to Detroit than its abandoned buildings,” said Jenenne Whitfield, the executive director of theHeidelberg Project, an arts organization there founded by the artist Tyree Guyton, whose sculptural transformation of a block of empty houses draws 275,000 visitors a year. “That’s just not who we are.”
Although there is plenty of rubble in “Detroit Disassembled,” Mr. Moore’s work usually escapes the narrow constraints of the genre. His large-scale prints—some up to 5 feet by 6 feet — are sumptuous and painterly, rich in texture and color: the emerald carpet of moss growing on the floor of Henry Ford’s office at the Model T plant, the pumpkin-orange walls of a vandalized classroom at Cass Technical High School, the crimson panels of a former F.B.I. shooting range. Photos like those of the enormous rolling hall at Ford’s River Rouge plant and a sunset over the Bob-Lo Island boat dock were inspired, Mr. Moore said, by 19th-century American landscape painters like Frederic Church and Martin Johnson Heade.
Mr. Moore sees the ruin porn controversy as part of the debate about “whether the artist should be socially responsible or work in an unhindered fashion,” he said. “I don’t think those two goals are really reconcilable, but what I do think is that the tension between them, the place where they kind of meet, is a place of great creative traction. And I think Detroit actually is that meeting point, the place where art confronts anxiety.”