Originally published September 9, 2007
Photography is not always social commentary. Yes, there are times when the depiction of images serves to highlight the virtues and pitfalls of the world around us, but in some cases taking pictures is simply about taking for takings sake. Saturday morning I took my camera into Detroit for just that reason, nothing more. I feel the need to preface the work with with this disclaimer so the certain images of blight and despair are not viewed as my opinion of the state of things in my city. This is not ruin porn.
I love my city. It’s heartbeat is strong and within its borders I find many things of splendor and beauty. In any event, I’ve posted some of the photos….don’t read too much into them, just pictures, just a Saturday morning in the D.
I started in the warehouse district near Woodward and Grand. The Hastings Street Ballroom neighborhood has long been of interest to me. The sunflowers growing on the sidewalk amidst the littered streets and dillapitated buildings seemed an interesting contrast. The streets and alleys below the eleveated train tracks intrigued me as well.
From there it was down Woodward to midtown and the Contemporary Art Museum, then into New Center and the side streets behind Foxtown. Finally into Grand Circus Park and farther down Woodward towards Campus Martius and back.
I had the good fortune of good weather and good light, and new friends.
I met Rufus at a bustop across from Grand Circus Park. I was across the street surveying the skyline for something that might catch my eye when I heard this voice yelling over the traffic. I turned to see him pointing behind me and bellowing about the great buildings there, how if I were to stand up close and shoot straight up I could get some good shots. I crossed Woodward and thanked him, showing off a few images of that variety I had just taken. He went on to tell me how he usually has his camera in his backpack, the one he got from Wayne State for a photography class.
I don’t mean to doubt Rufus, although his appearance was not that of a normal college student, 40 plus years old, unkempt, bad teeth, the wandering melancholy of a man who lives on the streets – but who am I to tell a man who he is. If he chooses to be a student, out of pride, salesmanship or plain truth, so be it.
He told me about the pictures he often takes, shots of “brothas and sistas doin they thang in the alleys”. He didn’t elaborate, I didn’t assume.
We shared a few common thoughts on the city, shook hands, hugged it out and went our seperate ways as the 460 north pulled up to the bus stop and I meandered down Woodward towards the Apartment Music Lounge and so much more.
Soon after I found myself in Grand Circus Park shooting the Alger fountain and the Millenium Bell when I heard a voice asking why I didn’t ring the bell.
If you are not familiar with the Millenium Bell, it is a large metal sculpture in GCP that is also a functioning bell. The gong is an old gas cylinder suspended from a pulley. The shell is two pieces of Aluminum (I believe) curved and shaped into an upside down tulip. I turned to see Cliff, near 50, the same bad teeth, freshly shaved and carrying a small backpack. I told him I didn’t realize I could ring the bell. This was true. Although I did know it was possible, the thought never occurred to me to do so. Then Cliff rang the bell for me – a loud clang scaring the birds from the grass. I told him he made my morning and extended my hand. He shook it and asked if I could return the favor by helping out a homeless guy with a couple bucks.
I had left my wallet in my car, which was parked near the Town Pump I explained. He responded by saying “Hell, I can walk it if you can”. So off we went towards my car, how could I turn him away after a line like that? Cliff often sleeps in the park, at least when the weather is good. As we walked he pointed out churches, both seen and unseen, that served food and on what days. I told him I was a starving artist and might need to take advantage of these places someday. He laughed a big booming laugh and said “Hell, I’ll save you a seat”.
It seems “they” show movies on 4th street on Thursday nights. I didn’t ask who “they” were, he didn’t say. “They give you 4 or 5 pieces of chicken, bottled water, all that stuff, for a buck” he explained. Sounds like a good deal. I might have to start hanging out on 4th Street on Thursday nights. I’m sure Cliff will save me a seat.
Last week the movie was the new Halloween. I got the full rundown including plot commentary and how it compared to the original. He told me about a church near the Wayne State Area where you can get a shower and a change of clothes every Friday night. It seemed he had partaken the night before. It was a good walk. I enjoyed the conversation. I never felt threatened. I made a new friend. It was good.
I gave him six bucks from my wallet, for which he was very grateful. I’m not sure why six, seemed the appropriate number for a walking tour and a movie review. We shook hands, I told him to be safe, he returned the sentiment and I drove off in my car as he walked down Park Street back towards where I found him.
It occurred to me as I drove north towards home that I should have asked if I could take his picture. I don’t shoot people though, at least not often on jaunts like that one. Still, it would have been nice to have gotten a picture of my new friend. Once home I uploaded the days work to my computer and began editing the images. As I shuffled through I came across a picture I had taken of the statue of Hazen S Pingree. Sitting on the steps was Cliff. Funny, I remembered seeing the man there, he was leaning awkwardly in a similar pose to the statue lighting a cigarette. As he didn’t see me and seemed unlikely to confront me for photographing him I decided the shot was worth taking. When I met Cliff moments later I failed to put two and two together. Now I have. It makes four blocks, a movie review and a story.
Not bad for six bucks.
Photography is not always social commentary, although in the case of that image of Cliff and Hazen it just might be. Photography is not always social commentary, but I’m sure the images Rufus takes in the alleys are just that. Nothing more, nothing less.
Mine are just pictures, taken for takings sake.