A Photo Essay On An Overlooked Mainstay Of Detroit: Tiny Churches

“In Detroit, it seems that every structure has been a church, is a church, or will be one at some point.”

Think about Detroit architecture, and no doubt a dystopian vision of decaying houses springs to mind. Denver photographer Kevin Bauman has shot plenty of those. But he has also turned his camera on another, less theatrical mainstay of Detroit’s landscape: its little churches.


They’re everywhere: in old storefronts, former gas stations, strip malls, houses, and even garages behind houses. Some are deserted, many others still in use. “It seems that every structure has been a church, is a church, or will be one at some point,” Bauman tells Co.Design. “Just about anything can be used as a church. Sometimes a building will be used for successive churches, and will bear the names of both the current, and the former church.”

Bauman started the Small Churches project when he noticed the sheer quantity of congregations holed up in buildings designed for something else. “Eventually I began to wonder about the importance of religion, and the religious institutions themselves to the communities in which they are located,” he says. “Though I don’t have a great historical insight or background on the importance of religion to any particular community, my experience indicates that it provides emotional support, particularly to the poor. Community churches, like coffee shops, restaurants, and barber shops, are often a local gathering place; somewhere for people to get to know others in their community and to bond over a common belief.”

Bauman’s shooting style is no-nonsense. He captures the churches head on and crops tightly but not too tightly, lest we miss glimpses of the surrounding atmosphere, be it a prim flower pot on the sidewalk or a decrepit building next door (or both). This suggests an unsentimental viewpoint that has echoes of Diane Arbus’s candid approach to photographing circus freaks. She wanted us to look but not to pity. So too does Bauman.

It’s a refreshing counterpoint to the rotten-building porn that characterizes the vast majority of photography coming out of Detroit nowadays. In the Small Churches project, Bauman simply documents how an embattled city maintains its spiritual center, one reused storefront at a time.

To purchase a print, contact Bauman here.

[Images courtesy of Kevin Bauman]


About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.