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Finally, Photographs Of Detroit That Go Beyond Ruin Porn

Ruin porn has shaped Detroit’s public perception, but local photographers show a more nuanced version of the city.

Within its city limits, Detroit has some of the best modern architecture in the world, a thriving entrepreneurial spirit, and fiercely proud residents (it’s also become a lucrative—albeit controversial brand). It also has burned-out buildings, acres of abandoned lots, and the once-magnificent and now-defunct Beaux Arts train station that has become a symbol of the city’s riches-to-rags narrative.

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The problem with the latter version of Detroit is that it’s often the sole depiction of the city thanks to widely circulated photographs–the city can’t seem to shake the ruin porn.

Depot (Michigan Central Station), 2012Jennifer Garza-Cuen, Reno, NV

This year, the U.S. pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale—which is organized by the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning—is focused on speculative projects in Detroit through the theme of “The Architectural Imagination.” Cynthia Davidson—executive director of the non-profit Anyone Corporation and editor of the architecture journal Log—and Mónica Ponce de León—dean of Princeton’s architecture school—are co-curating the exhibition. Postcards featuring photographs of Detroit will be distributed at the biennial to give visitors a sense of what it’s like to live in the city today and offer context to the architectural designs on view, which grapple with underutilized sites in the area.

Davidson and de León hosted a contest to select the images. The 20 winning shots were chosen this week with the help of Camilo José Vergara, a sociologist and photographer who has been shooting Detroit for over 30 years. 10 of the 18 featured photographers (a few have multiple images in the 20 photo series) are Detroit-area residents.

Ray Shawn and his uncle’s van, 2011Corine Vermeulen, Hamtramck, MI

From the Fisher Building, Albert Kahn’s stately Art Deco masterpiece, to family portraits and the downtown skyline, the scenes show snippets of the people and places that comprise the city. There are also images of firefighters battling an inferno and that infamous train station—a reminder that while some areas, like downtown, have benefited from huge influxes of capital (ahem, Dan Gilbert and his Quicken Loans billions) the neighborhoods and city as a whole is far from “fixed.”

Together, they show that Detroit isn’t defined by a single place or image. It’s impossible to encapsulate the layered complexities of a modern city, but through the lens of people living, working, and visiting the area, there’s a chance of a truer story being told.

Spy the contest winners in the slide show above.

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Correction: Mónica Ponce de León is dean of Princeton’s architecture school, not Yale, as a previous version stated.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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