Bernard Yenelouis on Found Photos in Detroit

Arianna Arcara’s & Luca Santese’s Found Photos in Detroit is a collection of damaged Polaroids, snapshots and forensic images collected by the authors in Detroit. The poor condition of the images, the grime and wear kept intact in the scans made for the book, emphasizes a sense of abandonment and crisis, which when pinpointed as being from Detroit, allies it with other photographic projects done in Detroit in recent years, which most commonly are of the architecture of the city, viewed as an obsolescent shell of an archetypal industry-based (American) urbanity of the twentieth century.

The images in Found Photos in Detroit are also almost entirely of African Americans, which gives a racial specificity to the project which is missing in books of the now abandoned factories, office buildings, and houses. Arcara & Santese suggest a loss of personal experience, mirrored in the abandonment of these private photos, and in the privatized segregation operative in the once thriving industrial economy of Detroit. There were two major race riots in Detroit, in 1943 and 1967, and in general I would cite a lingering hypersensitivity about racial inequities that have functioned as a kind of denial or partial erasure of discord, the abject being mediated towards resolutions of some sort. The “flip” side to liberalism is its Puritanical tidiness in shaping experience towards a shared unity of purpose, a futurity of accord. Questions emerge out of this quandary: how can inequality be represented? Can it be addressed directly? Is it inscribed obliquely in ordinary things? How do we unpack the ordinary for it to reveal meaning? Does that meaning have to be clear?

The intensely racialized aspect of Found Photos in Detroit could be perceived as driven by Orientalist fantasies on the part of the Europeans Arcara and Santese, which also brings to mind that beyond its industrial exceptionalism, Detroit is known in the world for music, for Motown, for techno, which imply a spirit outside the deterministic order of the factory. It could also be seen as an acknowledgement of an economic system based in imbalances of race and class. The ragged condition of the photos implies that daily life itself has been a kind of hell, in which the images float as small talismans of pathos in an otherwise indifferent cycle of fate.

In the photographic library of Detroit there is now a compendium of astonishing architectural ruins, which is joined by the abject and obsolescent medium of print-based photography itself as seen in Found Photos in Detroit. We still do not have an outcome to the question: is this current incarnation of Detroit part of a boom-and-bust cycle of Capitalist economy that will re-emerge with scandalous profits and good times once again? Is there a future to the city, as we have known it? There is also now a substantial library of vernacular photographic practices, which as out-of-date forms enter into the limbo of historical overviews. Often this can take on a nostalgic character, nostalgic in a sentimental, retrograde manner. Found Photos in Detroit invokes a dystopic nostalgia of cruel optimism. This is an archive that has lost all agency other than as a site of haunting. Ostensibly found in scrap heaps, in the garbage, its immediate referents lost, there is no thread with which to find a way out of this labyrinth. It is a kind of sick irony that the motto of the city of Detroit, which references a total conflagration of the city in 1805 is: We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes. 

-Bernard Yenelouis

Images from Arianna Arcara’s & Luca Santese’s Found Photos in Detroit

Dora Apel, Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women and the Mob, Rutgers University Press, 2004 TR187 .A64 2004

J. Edward Bailey, The City Within, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1969 TR647 .B35 1969

Nancy Watson Barr, Motor City Muse: Detroit Photographs, Then and Now, Detroit Institute of Arts, 2013 TR659.8D47 .B37 2013

Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War, MIT, 2007 TR659 .C65 2007

Michael Kenna, The Rouge, Ram, 1995 TR660 .K46 1995

Andrew Moore, Inside Havana, Chronicle Books, 2002 TR659.C9 .66 2002

Douglas R. Nickel, Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998 TR646.U6 S62 1998

Robert Polidori, After the Flood, Steidl, 2006 TR820.5.U38 2004

Camilo Jose Vergara, American Ruins, Monacelli Press, 1999 TR820.5 .V47 1999

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