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Best Books -- A Closer Look: Found Photos in Detroit

Found Photos in Detroit.
By Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese.
Cesura Publishing
Found Photos in Detroit is a book of photographs and a few letters discovered by two Italian photographers while wandering the streets of Detroit. Like many other photographers, they had come to document the distressed city, but left instead with thousands of vernacular photographs, many of which were once part of a photographic police archive. An exhibition followed, and a selection of the images became this book.

Though I’d read the book’s description and the comments from Erik Kessels and John Gossage, who selected it as a Best Book of 2012, the contents of Found Photos in Detroit caught me off guard. We see family snapshots and awkward portraits, but the majority of the photographs were taken as evidence -- images of perpetrators, victims or crime scenes. There is a sizable difference between police evidence and personal snapshots -- full ranges of emotions and facial expressions are common in mug shots but seldom seen in candid portraits. Pictures of swollen faces initially intended as documents of physical harm are transformed by context; the rawness of the emotion behind the eyes becomes an inadvertent subject. We seldom see such complex emotions in photography.

Found Photos in Detroit. By Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese from Cesura Publishing.
Found Photos in DetroitBy Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese from Cesura Publishing.

Just a few pages in, I had a difficult time making sense of what I was looking at. The intimacy of the photographs is often bewildering. The book opens with a few pages of grids of portraits. The first selection are nearly too marred for their subjects to be visible, and as the pages turn, the faces become clearer and pull us in. The photographs are in various conditions -- some are faded, some pristine, others wrinkled, the emulsion sloughing off, spotted and stuck together. The more decayed an image, the closer you’ll strive to make out its subject, making the clearer images all the more immediate. A sequence of immaculate photographs showing two shirtless young boys displaying scrapes and marks on their skin are astonishing. The children look into the camera -- or perhaps at the photographer -- with wide-eye seriousness, with brutal calm, and something intangible. Photographs of crime scenes that send us stumbling through eerily empty houses seem to be an apt analogy to the act of going through the book; it feels a bit like trespassing. We naturally gawk to look at the twisted remains of a car crash, but seeing a grid of photographs documenting it from multiple angels gives us the ability to slow down and examine it, getting closer than we perhaps feel we should. The final group of sequential images walks us through the burned up interior of a house and just as I began to think I wouldn't find the body I'd anticipated, it appeared, and to more affect than I could have guessed. The book finishes with full-page reproductions, each photograph disfigured in its own spectacular way. Very effectively paced and sequenced, the book is uncomfortable, fascinating and emotionally jarring. Do we learn anything from this assortment of images? For me the answer was yes, but it wasn’t what I had expected. About a quarter of the way through the book, I decided that it wasn't really about Detroit.

Found Photos in DetroitBy Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese from Cesura Publishing.

It's taken me a lot of time to digest this book, though I take comfort in knowing that I'm in good company. Joerg Colberg notably had a difficult time with it, reiterating in his review that he doesn’t know what Found Photos in Detroit is trying to tell him. I certainly can't answer that question, nor can I say for sure if there's a statement about Detroit somewhere in it. The context triggers socio-political reactions and the photographs hit on racial and economic cues, but to me it feels misguided to look to this book for some kind of indication of the psyche of the city. I hate to think that anyone would consider a random assortment of photographic police evidence an apt description of any city; not unlike the often seen Detroit "Ruin Porn," it can't possibly portray the complexities of a city finding its identity in this new economic landscape. I think for many photographers Detroit makes an intriguing backdrop, a symbolic victim of the deceit and negligence of twentieth-century capitalism, and as a result many photographic projects based in the city seem simply to insist, "This can happen!" It is photography as a means to engage with our fears, fears that derive from personal morbidity rather than an attempt to understand a place.

Found Photos in DetroitBy Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese from Cesura Publishing.
Found Photos in DetroitBy Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese from Cesura Publishing.

I understand not being able to separate this book from its social context, and I don't expect it will be an easy book for anyone. Found Photos in Detroit raised questions for me on the uses of found vernacular images – who has ownership and who has the right to show them, particularly if those images were taken as police record, but I didn't find any statement on economics or race or politics or even Detroit for that matter. What I did find was a powerful document about fragility and decay, the fight against entropy, death and forgetting, and the futility of those efforts. The photographs and their context are symbolically rich, and for me, this is where the book's voice lies. Representing hope and fear, our efforts to control even the most frightening and chaotic parts of our lives, the desire to document and declare that one matters, the images ultimately betray photography's weakness as a testament to our lives. Like us, they too will vanish. --Sarah Bradley

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2012 by Erik Kessels & John Gossage.

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