Detroit Foresaken

By Ryan Spencer Reed Back to

Ryan Spencer Reed, photo mag, photo technique While Detroit grapples with the dominating remains of abandoned automobile manufacturing facilities, this once fine example of a Packard decays in an abandoned rail yard.

These are not the ruins of Rome nor the tombs of Egypt. While the echoes of the past resonate, this community is extinguishing in the present. The story of Detroit is one of the most significant representations of a nation in transition. As a photographer, I began an anthropological exploration there in the spring of 2009 and continue today through a kind of architectural archaeology. This is a story about things left behind painted with a heavy heart by dim and murky light — a story told amidst the death of the American Industrial Revolution.

Like the structures depicted, the individual prints are intended as artifacts of beauty, time and consequence. For that reason, I chose to capture this body of work using film and cameras that, like their subject, were built without any planned obsolescence. Ironically, both have found themselves in a world that struggles to justify practical uses for them. I find this turn intriguing and discover solace in knowing that some of the last images made of these buildings will have been created with an archival permanence in mind through a medium and mechanism fitting their vintage. Nearly devoid of the human form, these images unveil the Arsenal of Democracy as it remains in the wake of unsustainable business practices following the aftermath of World War II. As a body of work, they become instrumental in creating an economic imperative for more sustainable business practices. If this story is evidence of a country’s misspent youth, then the revelation of peak oil and the long overdue correction to the bubbles that formed following the Great War mark the harsh wakeup call that is adulthood.

My passion for storytelling emerged when I fully recognized and appreciated the power of imagery to influence and inform. This revelation came in my last years of schooling, and I soon found myself drifting off the beaten pre-med and physics path, the pursuit for which I first entered university. For the first time, I felt I had encountered something that would keep me aligned to my principals. The summer following graduation, I set off to East Africa to cover critical social issues with a camera. Once there, I fell immediately into photographing the aftermath of nearly two decades of war in Sudan. I spent the next couple years formulating a visual narrative that portrayed what I had seen while still maintaining, and whenever possible highlighting, the dignity with which the Sudanese lived their lives amidst such trauma.

Ryan Spencer Reed, photo mag, photo technique
Motor City’s stage for Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and other musical giants: The Vanity Ballroom’s now hollow dance floor suggests the opulence provided by the manufacturing spoils of the 1930s and 40s.

Coming home, I felt a great deal of responsibility to do something with that work. Given the news media’s limited interest in the subject, and genre at large, I needed to find new outlets and new audiences. I contacted universities and proposed the concept of building a symposium- like atmosphere where my exhibition could serve as a cultural backdrop. From 2003 to the present, I have been able to bring my work to nearly 200 venues through lect- ures and traveling exhibits on Sudan titled, The Cost of Silence. They helped to raise the level of debate and, in the hands of Sudan advocates, served to illustrate the need for action.

This was a very inspiring time for me. However, as I traveled throughout North America to speak publicly on a crisis half a world away, I began to take interest in the economic situation domestically. I sensed for years that my nation was increasingly disoriented, and what I was seeing while traveling solidified my concern. I was compelled to record what I could of the decline of American power wherever I lectured, building a substantial archive on the subject. The city of Detroit was always in the back of my mind as a necessary destination for this project. In 2008, the requests for the Sudan work had dwindled significantly, affording me the time to finally explore it. I was immediately overwhelmed by the scale of economic decline in Detroit. It took months to become visually and conceptually acclimated to the project, and over a year and a half to work out how to tell its story.

One of the most ominous challenges to overcome was that Detroit had been covered abundantly and for a great many years. I was, however, lured by the sirens of strangeness in the Detroit landscapes. I internalized tremendous respect for the structures and the people who built and once occupied them, and I could not help myself from trying to formulate a visual expression of my feelings upon seeing them left for waste. The history was so incredibly rich, and in some way still tangible; like it could be inhaled through the damp, metallic air of vacant corridors.

Ryan Spencer Reed, photo technique, photo mag
Michigan Central Station stood as a testament of Detroit’s grandeur to all incoming rail passengers. This half-million sq. ft. architectural feat pumped thousands along its since diverted rails. As jobs decreased, expressways expanded and affluent areas of the city were left for suburban life, the station was closed in 1988. Despite community support to salvage the building, Detroit City Council voted in April 2009 to have the structure demolished.

I knew the project would stretch my imagination and challenge me to make a different kind of imagery than I had made previously in Sudan. Since I was no longer focused on making pictures for news magazines, I was free to explore a far less literal interpretation of a subject matter. For this body of work, I tried to construct a very basic, and more importantly familiar, representation of daily American life using the many relics I found. With help from locals, I sought out the places where people once worked, worshiped and learned, where they were entertained, and where they were taken care of in their old age, in an attempt to find the icons through which to personify the stillness.

To make the most of the available light in these scenes, I broadened film’s wide dynamic range by a process using a slight adaptation of Barry Thornton’s two-bath developer. By stretching what the film had to offer I could control the extreme contrast of photographing an interior that may happen to include harsh light sources, such as windows or holes in a ceiling. I mixed the two solutions using powder chemicals procured from The Photographer’s Formulary. Bath A, comprised of developing agents Metol and Sodium Sulfite, soaks into the film with little actual development occurring. When Bath B hits the saturated emulation, however, the developer from Bath A is activated by the accelerant Sodium Metaborate. The magic of this process is that the developer will exhaust more quickly where silver is more prevalent in the highlights limiting the negative’s density. Meanwhile, where sparse amounts of light struck the film in the shadow areas, development will continue to bring out shadow detail. This process allowed me to expose for the mood I wanted to create while preserving simultaneously both highlight and deep shadow detail.

I used a Hasselblad 343 scanner to yield digital files from which to make prints on an Epson fitted with John Cone’s Piezography K-7 inks. The many dilutions of carbon pigment inks in this system yield velvety blacks with smooth tonal transitions. I feel they enhance the three-dimensional experience of a scene represented on paper and are reminiscent of platinum prints, which is a process I am currently pursuing for producing a future edition of this body of work.

Whenever appropriate, I incorporated anonymity as a method for these pictures to collectively work on the psyche of the viewer. In one instance, I wanted to include an image of the famed Michigan Central Station. The building is sought after by photographers, due to the phenomenal architecture employed, combined with the high degree of degradation in its current state. It simply has an alluring prominence, and has, therefore, been photographed prolifically. Not withstanding, I still felt the building offered a unique opportunity to contribute to the splendor of America’s bygone industrial age. I took the approach of ‘less is more’ by framing only the main entryway instead of revealing the entire building. I obscured it slightly with subtle camera motion during a long exposure. Finally, I composed the frame to include a white plastic bag caught on concertina wire and moved by the wind to give the appearance of an atmospheric fog.

Ryan Spencer Reed, photo technique, photo mag
Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; vacant homes are bandaged with plywood to prevent vandals from entering through wounded windows. Once exquisite homes now invite scavengers looking to profit from scrap metal, masonry and architectural elements.

In another example, creating a slightly distorted image of a house was less an exercise to illustrate that particular house than it was about conjuring the suggestion of the American Dream of home ownership. In doing so, I hope to give a viewer more access to the intended themes, feelings and mood than would be possible with a very literal rendition and an otherwise closed image. I am relying on the viewer to subconsciously complete the picture with his or her own experiences — to see more than just a blurry picture of a house. I hope they will recognize the home where they grew up or another meaningful place in the likeness of that picture, similar to an image in a dream that stays just out of reach. If I can extract that kind of participation within the momentary pause at each photographic punctuation along the narrative arch of my stories, then I will have succeeded in making a connection.

To continue with this project, I now want to delve back into the state of the broader union as it has been impacted by allowing Detroit to falter—not the literal city, but the value structure and way of life that made it a symbol for the 20th Century worker. I intend to explore this theme through many of the communities made necessary by Detroit: the former steel-mill, textile, paper, automobile and mining towns.

A city at the intersection of countless geopolitical and socioeconomic faultlines, Detroit was a monolith of human achievement. Few cities have had more influence on the growth of a civilization. Few cities have so rapidly fallen from grace. As an economic bellwether, she now lives a cautionary tale for all those great cities that danced to Motown’s lead, and are most likely doomed to follow in her footsteps. What remains is a drained and evaporated city landscape — one that is haunting, seductive and alive with ghosts.

Product Resources: Cameras: Leica M3, Leica M4-P, Hasselblad X-Pan II, Leica M9; Paper: Ilford HP5; Chemistry: Variation of Barry Thornton’s 2-bath developer mixed from raw chemicals, Kodak Fixer, Hass Intellifaucet K375 (water temperature and flow control); Computer: Apple G4 tower; Software: Adobe Photoshop; Scanner: Imacon/Hasselblad 343; Printer: Epson 7800; Inks: John Cone’s Carbon Inks; Paper: Hahnemuhle Photo Rag 308.

About the Author

Ryan Spencer Reed
Ryan Spencer Reed’s work has been exhibited at the New York Historical Society, The Boston Institute for Contemporary Art, the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History and the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. In 2003, he attended the Eddie Addams Workshop by invitation. In 2006, he was awarded the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute Documentary Photography Project’s Distribution Grant to help his work on Sudan reach additional audiences. He continues to exhibit and lecture on the Sudan and photograph extensively on the theme of the hubris of power amidst the twilight of the American industrial revolution. The first chapter of photographs on Detroit is now completed and ready for exhibition. He is a native of Ludington, MI. To view the rest of this series, please visit: