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Book Review: Detroit: Unbroken Down


Book Review Detroit: Unbroken Down By Dave Jordano Reviewed by George Slade One of the ways photography lies to us — one of its most subtle yet impactful ways — is through its relationship with color. When we look at a photographic print or a halftone reproduction rendered in color, it’s important to remember that the presentation of those colors is the net result of various subjective decisions made in the steps from real life into captured matrix into output file into final form.

Detroit: Unbroken DownBy Dave Jordano
powerHouse Books, 2015.
 
Detroit: Unbroken Down
Reviewed by George Slade

Detroit: Unbroken Down
Photographs by Dave Jordano. Text by Dawoud Bey, Nancy Watson Barr and Sharon Zukin.
powerHouse Books, New York, 2015. In English. 160 pp., 12¼x10¼".


One of the ways photography lies to us — one of its most subtle yet impactful ways — is through its relationship with color. When we look at a photographic print or a halftone reproduction rendered in color, it’s important to remember that the presentation of those colors is the net result of various subjective decisions made in the steps from real life into captured matrix into output file into final form.

Unlike black-and-white images, color works are not immediately obvious abstractions. Color photographs clearly mirror life. Don’t they? Honestly, no. Very few photographers take a color reference chart with them to insure that what they saw is what you get. All images result from diddling with hues, tints, contrast, saturation, and so on. Those nuanced decisions are based on both desired outcomes and recalled impressions. Memory of color affects production, and reproduction, of color. Emotions affect memory. And where emotions come from is a question above my pay grade. Nonetheless, an artist’s emotions and memories play a significant role when generating the colors an audience sees.

Detroit: Unbroken DownBy Dave JordanopowerHouse Books, 2015.

I dwell on this because Dave Jordano’s photographs seem tinged with both memory and hope. He sees Detroit in two lights. One is the city as his birthplace, a battered city that is still fighting. The other is the city as a fatally wounded place, one that conventional wisdom has relegated to the ash heap, a fate Jordano refuses to accept. “These photographs are my reaction to all the negative press that Detroit has had to endure over the years,” Jordano explains in a refreshingly forthcoming foreword. After being away from his hometown for over three decades, “I wanted to see for myself what everyone was talking about.”

Detroit: Unbroken DownBy Dave JordanopowerHouse Books, 2015.

His first inclination was to dwell on the wounds, the evidence of wreck and despair—“the same subjects that other photographers were interested in” and had published widely. “Detroit ruin porn,” as Dawoud Bey calls this example of photographic expediency in an opening dialogue with Jordano. Bey recalls the pre-figured impulses followed by reporters in New Orleans a decade ago, redrawing muddy-floored churches, decayed family photographs, houses atop cars, and the patois of survivor graffiti in the months after Katrina. Similar tropes evolved in Detroit; Jordano saw and transcended them.

On formal terms, there appear to be two different palettes at work in many of this book’s images. Vivid foregrounds are set against nature’s saturated greens or man’s grimy duns and greasy ochres. There is, as I suggested at the outset, an emotional investment in the foreground colors, worn by and identifying people who stand out from and will not be camouflaged or swallowed up by their surroundings: Carrie, leaning forward in a striped blue shirt, radiant lipstick, and shadowy, close-cropped hair, nearly projects herself out of the picture and into the viewer’s space; Ejaz, wearing a bushy orange beard that is outdone by the flaming zig-zag pattern of his shirt; Jerome, clad head to ankles in iridescent mango velour. People of color, to be sure. Were these chromatic exclamation points central to Jordano’s successful progress?

Detroit: Unbroken DownBy Dave JordanopowerHouse Books, 2015.

Over the years I have weighed the notion of a documentary style I have called “civic.” Its principal feature is a visual exploration of the civilian ethos constituting a community. As I envision Jordano traveling the streets of Detroit and making photographs along the way, I try to assess what draws his interest. “I make no excuses,” Jordano says, “about where I’ve concentrated my efforts, which are in the more economically distressed neighborhoods of the city.” What specific elements made him stop? That contrast of colors, foreground versus background, seems to be one hook. I should note that the human subject isn’t always the more colorful of the picture’s planes; the man walking in front of a bright yellow wall for instance, or Arthur, nearly invisible in the window of his candy-festooned storefront. He also steps back for the occasional establishing shot; his images of scruffy backyard basketball, a man harvesting his burgeoning garden, police cadets training in an abandoned dollar store’s parking lot, and a sidewalk cricket game in a Bangladeshi neighborhood provide a multi-dimensional sense of context. The Detroit that evolves in Jordano’s photographs plays, grows, aspires — and occasionally sleeps, in a few oddly intimate images.

For this viewer, a couple of the book’s strongest images are ones that display a continuity between figure and ground: A blues guitar man in his comfy chair; Cookie, one of the Goldengate settlers; Brad, excavating scrap metal; and, above all, Hakeem, whose two images are studies in brown and black, presence and absence, positivity and place. I must admit, too, that I am smitten by Micah, whose indescribable hair against a tree’s green canopy beautifully spoils the otherwise elegant blending of her torso and the surrounding built environment. Her image seems perhaps the most future-oriented, optimistic portrait in the book.

Detroit: Unbroken DownBy Dave JordanopowerHouse Books, 2015.

If I must kvetsch about something related to this book, I will say that some great books have great titles, while others, not so much. As a title, Detroit: Unbroken Down is troubling and confusing to me. It sat too heavily on my shoulder as I engaged with the photographs, challenging each image to address the question: Does this show unbroken-down Detroit? Do these images collectively demonstrate that Detroit is not broken down? Honestly, no. On the whole, the hard road that precedes and likely follows each portrait encounter is manifest. There is life in these images, and a modicum of hope based on faith in the human spirit. But the title implies something transcendent, even redemptive. By itself, “unbroken” is a useful idea; combined with “down” it poses conceptual challenges and a negative predisposition that is untrue to the photography.

Detroit: Unbroken DownBy Dave JordanopowerHouse Books, 2015.

There is strife in this civic documentary record, but it is set against fairness, charity, and pervasive respect. The crises of poverty, senseless death, and homelessness are evident but so is a bohemian industriousness that is revivifying abandoned houses along Goldengate Street, repairing bicycles, holding music festivals, and growing vegetables in scores of urban gardens. The photographer’s humanist ethos emerges in the well-constructed dialogue with photographer Dawoud Bey, cited earlier, which opens the book. Jordano’s stance is mature and measured. In contrast to the abundance of centripetal, self-iterating “abandonment photography” in Detroit, Jordano sought to depict some of the 700,000 people still at home, occupying still-functional neighborhoods. “I felt that perhaps I could make a difference and change the perception of what others thought of Detroit,” he said to Bey. “It was important to me to create a balance by tipping the scale in the other direction towards what I thought was a more compassionate and understanding view of what the city was really like.”

Detroit: Unbroken DownBy Dave JordanopowerHouse Books, 2015.

Maybe the redemptive quality of the book’s title is, in fact, intended. Jordano’s collective portrait of a city rebuilding itself citizen by citizen, block by block, and neighborhood by neighborhood sounds a reveille, not a dirge. And that is a welcome change of tone.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/

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