Several years after the original Cass Tech High School in downtown Detroit was abandoned, a local photographer sifting through the ruins found decades of the school’s storied history in the chaos of what had been the yearbook room on the fourth floor. In a cabinet that had largely shielded the trove from water damage, he found boxes and boxes of loose photos and developed film taken throughout the school’s life.
Al–and this is not his real name–smuggled the images out over three or four trips and digitized them before turning over the originals to the school’s alumni association. The images show students, in black-and-white, seated in the library, or, more recently, mugging for the camera in full color in front of their lockers. Al later returned to the school with dozens of these photos and an “elderly” Canon camera in hand, trying to produce images like this:
Throughout the building, he has simultaneously captured the place in its prime and after decline, with an amazingly precise alignment of angles and eras in a single frame. The images, along with others from around the city, are all collected on the anonymous Detroit photography website Detroiturbex. In a city where many photographers have made their names turning local misfortune into art, Al, a contributor to the site, says this: “I want the website to focus on the city and its issues and spur substantive creative discussion about how things got to where they’re at, and where they’re going, rather than who took the picture? Is he handsome? Is he an old dude? Is he a white guy, is he a black guy, or girl?” (There is also the simple fact that some of this urban-exploration photography is illegal.)
This particular Now and Then series of photos turns typical ruin photography of the city–which catches it at its worst moment in time–into more of a reflection of change over time.
“I suppose I would like people to see that these buildings–for instance like Cass Tech–had a lot of life in them at one point,” Al says. “Cass Tech had up to 5,000 students in it a day, those hallways were packed, those classes had a lot of activities going on in them. While it may seem like a lot of work, it’s not so much of a stretch of the imagination to see these buildings with that same level of activity again.”
At the time Detroiturbex first started posting these images, there was still faint hope that the historic Cass Tech building, built in 1919, might be salvaged, if not for a school, then for something like apartments. But the building suffered a major fire in 2007 and was ultimately demolished last year. A new Cass Tech high school is now located right beside it.
Some of the other photos in the Now and Then series show historic buildings– still standing today–changing over a much shorter period of time, as empty interiors further deteriorated within a few months or years due to scrappers, flooding or fire. Whenever he enters a school, Al says, he always goes looking first for the yearbook room or the library, where the historic pictures are located. The main branch of the Detroit Public Library has a wealth of old yearbooks as well. From there, the process of piecing a building’s history back together through photography is as painstaking as hunting down a locker number in the background. At Cass Tech, Al took as many as 50 or 60 shots from a single spot trying to find the focal length.
Some of that change today in the city is positive. The historic David Whitney skyscraper, for instance, is now slated for redevelopment as a hotel. Al has his eye on several projects like that around town, which will produce a different kind of “Now and Then” series. “I’ve got pictures beforehand,” Al says, “and now I’m just waiting for the positive to catch up.”