Detroit Native Dave Jordano Uses Street Photography to Counter “Ruin Porn”

 

© Dave Jordano 2013

© Dave Jordano 2013

Photographer Dave Jordano’s three-year project “Detroit–Unbroken Down,” featured in this week’s Time magazine and on a recent post on Time’s Lightbox, represent a return to Jordano’s roots – both personally and professionally. Jordano grew up in Detroit, and he began revisiting it three years ago to document how it had changed since 1977, when he moved to Chicago to launch his commercial photography career. The project also represents a return to the documentary street photography he had done before he began shooting ad campaigns. Almost a decade after he began transitioning from advertising work to fine-art photography, Jordano, 65, has had several projects exhibited and sold prints to several museum collections. But, he says, “This Detroit work is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t think the project’s finished yet.”

In 2010, Jordano noticed that there were many photo books being published about Detroit, all focused on “abandonment and emptiness.” He says, “The term ‘ruin porn’ was used to describe it.” Jordano still had the street photos he’d shot in Detroit as a photo student in the 1970s, and he decided to try a re-photographing the same streets 35 years later. But the project soon changed course. Over the course of 22 trips in the last three years, he’s started focusing on “portraiture and small moments.” He explains, “There are people living here and they’re stuck here because they can’t afford to leave.” His view of Detroit isn’t rosy. City neighborhoods lack grocery stores, bus service or street lights; calls to 911 take at least an hour to rouse a response. “Anyone there will tell you it’s awful, but this is what they deal with every day” he says. His images capture people managing to survive.

As a native of Detroit, Jordano says, “I was just more emotionally connected to the place than photographers who were just coming in and out, and then posting work that made the whole city look bad.”

When he tells locals that he wants to photograph something “hopeful,” he says, “They get it.” He’s also received help and support from fellow photographers who live in Detroit. This year, some of his images from “Detroit–Unbroken Down” were exhibited, along with images by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Bill Rauhauser and others who had shot in Detroit, in “Motor City Muse,” a show organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts.

As a student at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies in the early 70s, Jordano was inspired by photographers like Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Emmet Gowin. But he also learned how to shoot with a view camera, and when he decided he wanted to work for himself, he opened a studio in Chicago. He shot campaigns for Sears, General Mills, Kraft, McDonald’s and other national brands. But around 2003, he says, he started leaving his studio to shoot outside more and more. “My documentary roots were calling me back.”

Starting over as a fine-art photographer meant he had to show his work at portfolio reviews. He was a finalist for the Critical Mass book award in 2008 and 2009. His work on Chicago’s African-American churches were shown at the Chicago Cultural Center in Chicago and published as a book in 2009.

Three years ago, he says, “I couldn’t concentrate shooting fine art and commercial work, and put 110 percent into both.” He told clients he was willing to shoot assignments, but he stopped advertising in sourcebooks. His documentary photography is now represented by galleries in Boston and Antwerp, Belgium, and he’ll be exhibited at the United Photo Industries Gallery in Brooklyn, New York next year.

“I think most people who are commercial shooters can’t make that transition, but I fell right into it,” he says.

He recently returned from another trip to Detroit: “I love going back.” In pursuing a long-term project, he says, “You’re learning all the time. I just feel like I’m getting better all the time.”

* Photo, above: “Firemen Resting on Roof of House, Eastside, Detroit, 2013. Copyright Dave Jordano.

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