An Ode to the City that Endures
In a continuation of Dave Jordano’s critically-acclaimed Detroit: Unbroken Down (powerHouse Books, 2015) which documented the lives of struggling residents, A Detroit Nocturne is an artist’s book not of people this time, but instead the places within which they live and work: structures, dwellings, and storefronts. These photographs speak to the quiet resolve of Detroit’s neighborhoods and its stewards, independent shop proprietors and home owners who have survived the long and difficult path of living in a post-industrial city stripped of economic prosperity and opportunity. Jordano’s images show us the framework of a city whose glorious days of growth and energy lie sleeping in the streetlight-painted facades of night clubs, markets, houses, and shuttered buildings.
These nocturnal images offer a chance to view the locations in an unfamiliar light and offer a moment of quiet and calm reflection.
In many rust-belt cities like Detroit, people’s lives often hang in the balance as neighborhoods support and provide for each other through job creation, ad hoc community involvement, moral and spiritual support, and a well-honed Do-It-Yourself attitude. With all the media attention about Detroit’s rebirth and revival, it is important to note that many neighborhoods throughout the city have managed to survive against the odds for years, relying on local merchants and businesses that operate on a cash only basis who have stuck it out through decades of economic decline.
The photographs Jordano makes of Detroit’s night landscape transform the parts of the city where economic revival have been slow, or non-existent, to recover from the hardship the city has endured. I talked with Jordano about the background of this project and how it relates to his larger body of work documenting Detroit. “Currently Detroit is going through somewhat of a resurgence,” Jordano reflects, “but it only involves specific areas of the city where developers have reinvested with the assurances of profiting from their investments. It only covers approximately seven square miles of a city that has a total land mass of 138 square miles. Do the math, and you can see that over 130 square miles of the city has been basically overlooked. It’s these areas that I’ve concentrated my efforts on documenting because it represents the true character of the city.”
Determination and a strong sense of self-preservation, Detroit’s citizens manage to survive by maintaining a healthy sense of connection without the fear of giving up. All of these places of business and residencies, whether large or small, are in many ways symbols representing the ongoing story that is Detroit, and a testament to the tenacity of those who are trying desperately to hold on to what is left of the social and economic fabric of the city. These photographs speak to that truth without casting an overly sentimental gaze.
A Detroit Nocturne is a wonderful portrait of a city. Jordano takes care and patience to evoke a personality from buildings and structures that he cannot coax a reaction from. When I asked him about the comparison between ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Unbroken Down’ as being a portraiture project of two aspects of a city Jordano said, “To impart respect, dignity, and honesty to my subjects, whether they’re a person or a building, are hopefully qualities that will translate to a broader viewing audience. True, you don’t have to elicit an expression when photographing a building,” he continued. “But my approach is one of trying to bring the most out of the subject in the most honest and factual way that I can. Buildings were built plum and square, so my insistence to keeping the verticals straight is practiced throughout all of my work. It’s a simple thing, but important to keeping as close to the truth as possible. Obviously, people are different and the collaboration between the subject and photographer takes on a much more important and connective role. I really never considered myself a “portrait” photographer in the strictest sense, but I felt there was a huge imbalance with what photographers were depicting in Detroit so I made it a priority to work through the fear of meeting people in order to make their portrait and dispel the city’s usual dystopian trope.”
The images of buildings emblazoned with hand-lettered signage, ad hoc lights illuminating their facades, and mixed hues of color cast from street lights might evoke a feeling of Edward Hopper’s images of empty streets, and strong visual contrasts between inhabited environments and their shadowy surroundings. A subset of his images in A Detroit Nocturne all begin with the title ‘Hoop Dreams’ followed by the location of a basketball backboard and hoop. The midwest is riddled with many basketball goals set up in cul-de-sacs, driveways, and practically any space where a pick up game could be played. The absence of any people in these images of basketball hoops, and the inclusion of the word ‘dream’ evokes a feeling of hopelessness and abandonment. Perhaps, the loss of the proverbial American Dream.
His chosen locations are often vacant of human activity, and they frequently imply the temporary nature of the life and use of structures we use for a home or business. Prosperity in early phase of a building’s life gives way to dormancy and later abandonment. Jordano captures these scenes by using the available light to reveal Detroit’s overlooked neighborhoods in a pitch-black night. But whether it is a scene with steam rising from underground pipes, a foggy new housing development, or fresh snowfall blanketing a makeshift, side-street basketball court — I was struck by the distinct sense of calm his night scenes bring; and with calm comes hope. Like the saying: ‘It is always darkest before the dawn’, the resilience and endurance of Detroit, as reflected in its residents and the environment they call home, will surely see their way through this metaphoric night.
A Detroit Nocturne by Dave Jordano
Foreword by Karen Irvine
Hardcover, 12 x 10 inches, 120 pages
All images used with permission. From A Detroit Nocturne by Dave Jordano published by powerHouse Books.
To learn more about Dave Jordano, and see more of his work — please visit http://davejordano.com/
Dave Jordano was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1948. He received a BFA in photography from the College for Creative Studies in 1974. In 1977 he established a successful commercial photography studio in Chicago, shooting major print campaigns for national advertising agencies. Jordano is the author of Detroit: Unbroken Down (powerHouse Books, 2015) and has exhibited nationally and internationally and his work is included in the permanent collection of several private, corporate, and museum institutions, most notably the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts Houston; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Detroit Historical Museum; The Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, Evanston; Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs; the Harris Bank Collection; and the Federal Reserve Bank.
Karen Irvine is Curator and Associate Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago. She has organized over forty five exhibitions of contemporary photography, at the MoCP and numerous other venues.
This is an edited version of the article originally published at F-Stop Magazine.