Detroit: Unbroken Down

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Unfortunately I could not attend the Study Visit to the Side Gallery in Newcastle to see this beautiful little show so went there under my own steam on Sunday 5 February 2017.  I have been visiting this gallery on and off ever since I moved to the North East 33 years ago but this was the first show I have seen there since they reopened last November after  18 months or so of renovation and refurbishment.  The gallery always, to my mind, suffered a bit from being rather gloomy and the exhibition space was very limited.  The exhibition gallery is now a lovely bright and open space over two floors with archives, project room, shop and reception downstairs.  Still not very big but calm, quiet, and rather soothing, perfect for contemplating some great photography.

The show itself is the work of Dave Jordano, a native of Detroit, who has of late been chronicling the city’s near terminal decline.  However, rather than focusing on the grand gestures (the formerly impressive buildings now turned into to underused indoor parking lots for example) or what I might call post-industrial-urban-decline-porn, what Jordano has chosen to focus on is the people.  The people of Detroit who have stayed, not necessarily out of choice it must be recognised, but for whom the rustbelt post-city (if there is such a thing) is still home.  A place where they have roots, where they feel they still belong, and for which they clearly still have affection (if that is not stretching a point too far – at least acceptance that they cannot realistically go anywhere else so might as well make the best of it that they can).  There are people in every single picture in this show.  The pictures are about them in all their humanity and warmth and, despite the abnormality of a once great industrial city now almost reduced to something like a Gold Rush ghost town, the normality of their lives.

I am sure Jordano could have chosen to people his home town with more tragic, broken figures but thankfully he has not.  Clearly some (many, if not all) of these people struggle.  It cannot be easy to live as a homeless person on the streets, to squat buildings without basic services or amenities, domestic or urban, or have to build your own cabin in order to have somewhere to live.  What comes across though, perhaps faute de mieux, is a sense of resilience and self reliance.  No one else is going to look after these people so they have to make the best shift they can for themselves.  As a result what comes across, above all else as it strikes me, is a great sense of dignity and courage.  These people might be down, but they are not out and do the best they can to lead as decent a life as they can. I know it is treading on perilously thin ice in social and class terms but they are all doing the best they can to lead a “respectable” life (even those who have been forced into lifestyle choices, to the extent they effectively have any choice, that some – the more strait-laced – might regard as anything but respectable).

Jordano’s gaze is very direct.  There is nowhere for his subjects to hide but it strikes me that they do not need to do so.  His pictures are very humane and sympathetic without ever being patronising.  They show these people in all their humanity, and sometimes vulnerability, but nevertheless with their dignity in tact.  He brings out a warmth in his subjects, which suggests strongly his own warmth and empathy.  One image that particularly comes to mind is a man who works as a maintenance engineer for a number of hamburger chains.  He has been captured in the midst of cleaning out his van, and presumably has been encountered by Jordan in passing.  He owns three pit bulls and one has got out, has come out onto the sidewalk and is standing between his owner’s legs, his front paws on his owner’s shoes, looking directly, inquisitively and not at all threateningly at the photographer.  The dog is curious and wants to know what is going on, but is cautious enough to want to take shelter in and comfort from standing between his owner’s legs.  Despite the fact it was clearly a cold day – there is what looks like sleet cutting across the frame – the scene exudes warmth.  (OK, I am a dog owner too and a sucker for any dog that is friendly, and I agree with the subject that there are no bad pit-bulls, only bad owners, but nevertheless I believe this is a great photo.)

This work stands very well on its own merits and it can be invidious sometimes to draw comparisons with the work of other photographers, particularly when one does not know if another photographer has ever been an influence on the work in question.  Nevertheless, when I saw these pictures there immediately came to mind the work of William Eggleston, whose work I very much admire, and in particular his recent exhibition “Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery in London.  (I did not get to see the show itself but did buy the book.)  What I think their work has in common is that sense of humanity, dignity of, and respect for the subject.  The direct, unflinching view, chance encounter, that very much puts the subject in a potentially exposed position but never seems to compromise or embarrass them (which I sometimes think the work of Martin Parr can do – but that is a subject for another time and place).  I also think the two artists share something in their sense of and use of colour (Eggleston of course was something of a mould breaker and attracted an amount of criticism for using colour when black and white was very much de rigeure for “street” photography).

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