In 2010, I had a meeting at the US consulate here in Melbourne. I was pursuing the possibility of studying abroad in the US and, when discussing options, the University of Michigan came up. I said ‘well I can’t picture Ann Arbour, but I know a bit about Detroit’. Looking at me with an award winning Mum’s-best-withering-look, the Consulate-General said ‘Detroit’s a dump’.
What I know of Detroit is fairly simple: once a steadfast hub of middle class jobs, manufacturing and innovation, the past 30-40 years have seen the place awash in political corruption, automation, bankruptcies and bailouts. With each successive financial bust, the city seems especially hard hit. Yet, for all that, it keeps on. With that in mind, turning to Franziska Klose’s Detroit (Spector, 2021) one finds a book that really captures both a sense of ruin and hope.
There are two main subjects shown throughout the book: industrial leftovers and plants. The remnants of industry are ruins. This is the ‘dump’ I was told about. We see hulking scaffolds hanging lifeless and inert; concrete and steel spread over messy and broken; plastic left just everywhere. It is impossible to deny that what is left in the abandonment of commerce is a long-standing form of pollution and a memorial to failure. A photograph of a billboard reads with a mocking dryness as it spruiks something ‘made in the Motor City’; the sentiment almost satirical, as if anything could still be made somewhere so broken and neglected. Klose manages to emphasise one of the most harrowing realities of industrialisation: without constant upkeep it becomes physically hideous and emotionally depressing. What is interesting about these photographs is that what they end up suggesting is that industrial structures last, but industrial systems do not. It is a more nuanced view of capitalism and engineering, almost an admiration for the workmanship and architecture with a wry critique of the market.
If Detroit is to be a living memorial then, looking at this book, it is not an embodiment of a dump, but the embodiment of what does last.
Where Klose’s work really hits its stride, though, is in the constant photographing of plants. While it may seem simplistic, by contrasting the decaying built environment with the flourishing natural one, Klose’s photographs contain enough subtlety that this becomes a real joy and feels hopeful. One way this occurs is through the softness of the plants. Unlike the angular, domineering way that metal and concrete own space, the plant life sinks in, wraps around and feeds through gaps and spaces. An image of a house, barely perceptible through the overgrowth surrounding it, reads not as depressing, not as ruinous, but as graceful. Where human engineering hangs lifeless and commercial systems have failed and vanished, the resilience of this plant life feels even more precious.
In this comparison, Klose shows that nature cannot, really, be stopped, but industry and machines break so easily. There is a really important expansion of what the images of ruin do, instead of suggesting the drama of decay, they instead make industry seem fickle, dead, lifeless in a way that seems agnostically pointless. Nature seems like an impossible engine, industry like a flash in the pan followed by a shrug. This turns the more common narrative, one of industry eating the world, a little on its head.
The images of plants also offer a renewed sense of hope for the human side of Detroit. Klose captures images of agriculture, farms and home gardens. With the food desert that was Detroit forcing people to farming, what is a story of social ugliness is shown alongside the beauty and bloom of cultivation. Without showing any people at all, the photographs Klose has made do speak to life, real life, despite the narrative of decay.
Klose’s work may appear to tread familiar territory: ruin porn, urban exploring and nature-as-saviour, yet there is more to this book than that. Her subtle connections between the fragility of human made systems, but not structures, and the long-term renewal of nature alongside the vast research and history included result in a book that is deeper than it may first appear. While some of the copy about this work refers to the sense of hopelessness of Detroit, I could not help but think that this book was actually hopeful. From tax-engineered corporate boom-bust omni-shambles to gardens, the shelter of shade and a more generous sense of independence is, to me, not an ugly end to a tragic story. If Detroit is to be a living memorial then, looking at this book, it is not an embodiment of a dump, but the embodiment of what does last. Yes, decay is a part of history, yes industrial materials will last a long time, yes what is left behind is psychologically saddening, but what emerges, springs up, pushes through and sustains feels equally powerful. We may be able to bring a city to its knees, but we can never really stop nature or what it can do for us.