Andrew Moore’s ‘Detroit Disassembled’ is a book that’s been on my wish list for a couple of years now. I’d discovered it just after it came out, as it was released at a similar time to the eye-wateringly expensive ‘The Ruins Of Detroit’ by Yves Marchand, but at about half the price. It’s certainly got fewer pages and photographs than Marchand’s book, but whether it’s half the book, I don’t know as I’m not prepared to spend over £50 on a book!
Moore’s book is slightly unusual in the genre in that the photographs are by a photographer, rather than an explorer. To that end, it has a different feel to it for some reason. Maybe it’s because the photographs were taken on a large format film camera, which requires a different approach to photography than the machine gun approach taken by many explorers. Interestingly, Moore’s media of choice is colour negative film, something very few explorers use (other than myself and a couple of others I know of on Flickr), but it actually makes a lot of sense, a the dynamic range of colour film is far greater than slide and digital, and this is useful when you are photographing indoor scenes where there may well be light shining in from outside, as well as dark shadows. And of course, large format can be enlarged to sizes that DSLR users can only dream about.
The use of colour for the work is an interesting choice. Many explorers us it as it is the default in their cameras and don’t really understand the complexities of black and white. In fairness, if you are more interested in documentation or taking photographs to prove you were there, then to spend time in post processing simply isn’t required. And to an extent, Moore is making a record of what is there, with no agenda other than to document. For this purpose colour fulfills the brief. Would lack and white have worked? Well that depends on the preference of the photographer, but given that black and white is a more expressive medium, then colour provides a more objective means of recording.
So what of the content? While the majority of the book is devoted to what has become termed ‘ruin porn’, the later pages are street scenes and portraits of some of the people who still live in the derelict urban areas. This is an interesting counterpoint to the dereliction scenes earlier on, as unlike other books on decay, which deal with individual sites or themes, this book is about a city and the people and communities clinging on to an existence amongst the decay.
While the city of Detroit as a whole is still a major conurbation, the scale of the decay is quite shocking. The New York Times reported that there are 70000 (yes seventy thousand) abandoned properties in Detroit). The decay of the inner-city/downtown first came to my attention a good few years back when Jeremy Clarkson visited the city as part of his Motorworld series in the early 90’s, and then did a feature in an abandoned area of town with Top Gear on the Ford GT 7 or 8 years ago. The decline has been a long, slow one, often attributed to a combination of ‘white flight’ to the suburbs after the 1967 riots, and the general decline of the US car industry, which Detroit is still the heart of.
Vast empty, factory complexes, what was once the worlds largest railway station abandoned for 20+ years, a fully stocked school supplies depot just rotting away, theatres, office blocks – it all seems oddly unreal. Moore says that “In Detroit the forward motion of time appears to have been thrown spectacularly into reverse”, and it’s hard to argue. Seeing all this through British eyes, where land is expensive, seems incomprehensible. Derelict sites rarely stay that way for long, but white flight from the suburbs leaving ethnic minorities populations to take over the industrial inner city areas is something we are familiar with. Thankfully, despite all it’s faults, British politics doesn’t allow its inner cities to decline in such a catastrophic manner.
What is hard to believe is that all this exists in the richest, most powerful, most technologically advanced nation on earth. But the very source of this wealth, the capitalist factory system, and its never-ending drive for efficiencies has itself contributed to the city’s decline. The older factories have closed and moved elsewhere, often to the suburbs, and so those left with jobs have followed them, as have the retail and commercial enterprises. The rise, fall and rise of the US car industry could fill volumes, but the nature of manufacturing is that it’s often cheaper to build and equip a new greenfield factory, than to renovate and run an old one. It’s even cheaper to shift the entire operation offshore, which is what has happened to a lot of second and third tier suppliers, leaving the higher value and assembly of vehicles in the USA. There simply are no comparisons in Britain and Europe (unless you count Chernobyl, but that’s a completely different situation, whose causes and effects are totally different).
Taken at a superficial level, as someone who has been part of the urbex community for a good few years, I’ve seen thousands of urbex photos. These bring nothing new to the genre, but as a study of an area and it’s crumbling edifices, it works very well indeed. Doubtless there are thousands of similar individual images online that are as good as or maybe even better of all the locations, but sometimes you can over indulge on this kind of thing on the internet, so it’s nice go have a flavour of things that may provide a good lead into other things online. However, this book is not about abandonment and dereliction per se, although it features it in large doses. Moore describes it as “a multi-faceted metaphor of America, present, past and, perhaps, even future.” I’m sufficiently well-travelled to know that this is not a typical American city, but it does provide an interesting illustration of a socio-political-economic worst case scenario and it’s consequences.
Order the book from Amazon here: Detroit Disassembled