This is what you get when urbex and HDR (subtle and not so) meets art photography. Thanks to the end of year reviews I’ve just now come across this work which was featured in The Guardian back in January and whilst I’m not about to give my £78 to Steidl for what looks like an incredible book Marchand and Heffre’s website has a nice, detailed selection of images and there’s plenty more on google should you be that way inclined as well. And I hope you are because unlike urbexers who have a tendency to prize the incursion into abandoned buildings over the resulting snaps or lame HDR-workers who value tonal range over image meaning this is a compelling and somewhat moving collection, as well as being neatly quirky.
I’m sure Detroit has many fine buildings that are still intact and in use; photographing relics of the past does not mean being blind to the present or future. But decay in Detroit resonates precisely because it was once the heart of the American dream with its mass produced automobiles symbolising the triumph of positive capitalism over the doomsayers and communists. To see banks, offices and hotels not just empty but abandoned is a deep shock; to see a police department with its files and photos strewn over the floor is perplexing. In the latter a woman’s face stares back from the ground: suspect, witness or victim? The interior of the United Artists Theater as processed here immediately reminds one of eerily-lit caves with their hanging stalactites.
There is no living human presence here. No cleaner caught in the background and no movement on the outside streets. People are revealed by the kicked over chairs on the floor American Hotel ballroom, by the books still left on the shelves of the decrepit St Christopher House public library, by the 70s portable television just waiting to be called into use on the table of a dusty, forgotten hotel. Lives were presumably lived in William Christopher House (pictured) but now the building itself looks like it’s had a stroke.
I’ve mentioned the processing. Some of it looks like the kind of HDR that excites people on flickr but not knowing the mechanics behind the reproduction I can’t say whether it’s that route they’ve taken. All I know is that it stops well short of the distorted hyper-real and instead the tonal ranges presented suit their subjects well, and in any case it’s a nice antidote to the washed-out pale colours that define much contemporary art photography. There’s nothing (that I’ve seen) in black and white either which ensures the ruins of Detroit have no hiding place in a faux past.
The Steidl book is a culmination of five years photography between 2005 and 2010, a similar project on Theaters is still underway. That brings together both dereliction from across the USA with re-use as in two startling examples the grand ceilings of opulent theatres look down on firstly a basketball court and secondly a shoe shop. Marchand and Meffre have a keen eye for such details and an effective way of presenting them – hopefully there will be more such work to come.