In all the photography that’s come out of Detroit in the past few years, we’ve yet to find someone like photographer Dave Jordano. Born in 1948 into what he calls the typical “GM family,” Dave was a suburban kid who cut his teeth shooting streetlife in Detroit in the 1970s. After that, he moved to Chicago, and promptly lost touch with what was happening in the city. Some three decades later, though, he felt compelled to return to the cityscapes and people that originally inspired him as a young photographer. And what Dave’s done over the past three years is truly something profound. You won’t find any “ruin porn” here. Instead, he’s put out a raw, sometimes inspiring, sometimes heart-breaking look at the people who still call Detroit home. To quote Dave, life in Detroit is often “gritty; it’s ad hoc; it’s whatever you have to do to survive.” Read on for our interview with Dave, and be sure to check out a slideshow of his Detroit photography here.
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Found Michigan: So, you grew up in the inner ring of suburbs, but you decided to go to college in the heart of the city. What was that like for you?
Dave: Well, I actually didn’t go to college right after high school. I did a two-year stint in the Army first, which was actually a blessing for me because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, and it got me away from all my doper friends. It was actually in the Army that I discovered photography. I was stationed in Germany, and I was just sitting in my room one morning, and a friend of mine came in with his Instamatic camera, and he said to me: Hey, I’ve got two frames left on this roll—why don’t we take a picture of each other and we’ll go down to the photo lab, make some black and white prints and send them back to our parents? I had nothing else to do, so I said, sure. Anyway, I opened up that first roll, loaded it onto the reel and developed it, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. That was really the moment, the epiphany, that led me into photography for the rest of my life.
I was basically self-taught for a year and a half, and when I got out of the Army, I applied to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit with the portfolio I had shot in Europe. Being a kid from the suburbs, Detroit was like a whole new world for me. I would just walk around the city and I found everything so fascinating. You know, Detroit is a lot different today than when I was a kid. In the 1970s, even though it had already started to lose population, it didn’t have this feeling of emptiness like it does today. At noontime, there would be thousands of people walking up and down the streets. There were even traffic jams. There was a vibrancy about the city that was captivating. At first, I made a lot of architectural photographs, documenting endangered buildings that were on the docket to be demolished. And the following summer, I used a 35mm camera to photograph barbershops and people in and around the city. I saw the barbershops as kind of a dying breed, because as the neighborhoods starting emptying out, many of the barbershops just closed. But, for me, it was just great getting out. And it was really freeing. Detroit felt like this vast cultural patchwork of people that you could just go and investigate, and it charged me creatively. I felt like the pace of the city was really inspiring, and that was what I wanted to document.
FM: But then, after college, you moved to Chicago, right?
Dave: Yes, I worked in Detroit for about a year, but I decided I didn’t want to photograph cars, which was the bread-and-butter work for a Detroit photographer at that time. As much as I liked cars, getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to catch a sunrise to photograph a car was not my cup of tea. So I set my sights on being a still-life photographer and moved to Chicago in 1977. I set up a studio there and I worked for more than 30 years as a commercial photographer. You know, all that time, I didn’t really pay much attention to what was happening in Detroit. I would go back home to visit relatives, but they all lived up in the ‘burbs. It wasn’t until around 2010, when I started to see the work of other photographers who were going to Detroit to photograph what happened to the city, that I started to realize how much the city had changed. These photographs were full of all this abandonment and empty factories—the kind of thing we call “ruin porn.” And I was just like: Oh my god, what happened to Detroit?
So I went back, and the first thing I thought about doing was a “re-photography” project. I had all these early architectural photographs that I had made in the 1970s, and I had written the addresses and dates on every negative sleeve. So I went back to each place and took the same picture that I made 37 years earlier, to document how the city had changed. And it was spooky, in a way, to have this memory kind of creep into me as I’m standing there looking at a building that often wasn’t even there anymore, but knowing I was there at one time, standing on that exact same spot, but as a different person.
During that time, the one building that affected me the most was the Farwell Building on Griswold Street. It was one of the most beautiful buildings the city ever had. It was all Tiffany domed chandeliers and Tiffany mosaics and beautiful Art Nouveau metalwork. And when I went back to photograph it, I was totally shocked. The building was just completely gutted and trashed. It got scrapped out: The chandeliers were stolen; all the Tiffany tile mosaic work had fallen out of the ceiling. The roof had huge holes in it and rain water poured in. I had to bribe a guard to let me go in—gave him 20 bucks—because it was all locked up. And it was completely pitch black inside, so I had to use a flashlight to expose the interiors to make the photographs. But it was really sad for me, because I remember distinctly how beautiful the building was, and what the city lost by letting it fall into disrepair.
FM: But even as you were photographing these buildings, you were pretty adamant that you didn’t want to rehash the ruin porn thing.
Dave: Yeah, I mean, when I’d go back, I’d hang around with a lot of friends that I went to school with. And they were all like, Hey, let me take you to the Packard plant or Michigan Central Station, or all these places that they’d take their friends to. It was obvious it had become the thing to do. And so I went and took a few photographs, and I just started to feel really ill over the experience. I didn’t know why I was doing this; photographers that come to photograph the abandonment are a dime a dozen. So I started asking myself, what’s left here? You know, there are still 700,000 people living here, coping with it all. So I started looking at all the neighborhoods, and thought I might try telling a story about the people still living here and their perseverance and what it’s like to survive here.
It started slowly. I would go to Detroit for, like, 10 days, and I just started hanging around neighborhoods and driving around trying to get my bearings again. If I saw something interesting, I would get out of the car and set up the camera. There would often be someone across the street watching me, and they’d wave, and I’d wave. And before you knew it, I’d be having a conversation with someone who’s been living in the neighborhood for 40 years, and they’d be telling me the whole history of their life. At that point, I’d often ask if I could take their photograph, and it just kind of grew from there. You know, you start making friends and meeting people, and I’d often go back a second, third or fourth time to see the same person and take their photograph again. I really wanted to make a story about Detroit that was humanistic and more compassionate than the one being told by all these people who come there for a couple of weeks and pull out their camera in front of the Packard plant and then just leave and never come back. For some reason, I felt connected to the people who still lived there, and I wanted to tell that story. They’re wonderful people. A lot of them are poor and struggling, but they have a lot of heart and a lot of love for their city.
FM: And some of these stories are just really almost hard to hear. I mean, you have this portrait of a woman with short hair, and we learn later from the caption that she has her hair cropped because her last date cut it all off with a butcher knife. Or there is another shot of this guy digging in an old scrapyard, sifting through tons and tons of dirt, just to get $50 worth of metal. It’s almost unbelievable that these are scenes from an American city.
Dave: Yeah. Of course, most of the guys that do the scrapping do it illegally. People will even burn a house down to expose all the wiring and the steel to make it easier to get at. But this guy, Brad, who you’re talking about, I met him digging in a field off of Jefferson Avenue in the Delray neighborhood. And he was just picking bits of metal out of the ground from an abandoned scrapyard. That was his way of making a living. And he’d go digging every day, and he’d pull, like, 2,000 pounds of metal out of the ground and go recycle it and get $100. I’d go back to the field constantly, and there was always some other group of guys digging somewhere in that field. But these guys did it because they didn’t want to break the law. In that sense, it was very uplifting. You know, Brad couldn’t find a job, but he had to come up with something, and he wasn’t going to rob and steal or deal drugs. So it’s hard work, but it’s honest work. Of course, on the other hand, it’s sad to see him do this; to have to go so low to make any money. But this is the reality of a lot of people in Detroit. It’s gritty. It’s ad hoc. It’s whatever you have to do to survive.
FM: And can you share a few more stories from some of the people you have gotten to know?
Dave: Well, there’s Tom. He lives in a tiny little cabin that he built for himself over by the waterfront on Jefferson Avenue, west of downtown. Tom was a homeless man who was tired of sleeping on benches, so he built himself a little “doghouse” up on an abandoned railroad abutment that overlooked the river. The house couldn’t have been bigger than 10 square feet, and he lived in it for seven years. No water, no heat, no electricity. He’d heat the space in the wintertime with candles. And then, he built another house. He’s an excellent carpenter. But he finds all his materials in construction site dumpsters, and now he’s got these two houses on this little plot of land that he’s claimed. And he just lives alone and takes care of himself and is a little eccentric, to say the least. But I see him every time I go to Detroit, so we’ve become friends. He’s even invited me to stay with him during my visits. He says I can stay in the house “up on the hill.” He’s a big inspiration for me. He’s so inventive. He’s always busy. And he’s happy. He’s really made something of his life that other people wouldn’t have thought of doing. Most people would have just kept going to shelters or sleeping in abandoned houses.
And then there is Hakeem. He lost his job, his house, got divorced, and now lives alone. He bought a house for $500 up around East Nevada Street and the freeway. They call him “the Brake Man,” because he’ll fix your brakes for $35. His house has no utilities, but he does have cold running water. He keeps a propane gas barbecue in one room during the wintertime to cook on and heat the room. The rest of the house is stone cold. He fixes people’s cars from an abandoned garage across the alley. He’s also a very inspirational person. He’s a born-again Muslim and is serious about his faith, but not overbearing. I see him all the time and we text just about every week. At least he’s got a phone.
Another person I’ve met is Cornell, who was living in an abandoned nursing home on East Grand Boulevard. He had just gotten out of prison—for what, I don’t know; I didn’t ask. I met him when I was driving around, and I saw this house that was in pretty good condition, but the front door was wide open. And so I walked in, and Cornell was inside, sweeping up the floor. We got to talking, and he was telling me about how he was going to buy the house from the City for a dollar. He was a little bit misinformed about how that was going to work, so in essence, he was really just squatting. But he wanted to put together a group of people that would fix up the house and live there. The last time I talked with him, though, the scrappers had gotten in the house, busted out every window, took out all the lead weights in the window frames—just completely trashed the house. He didn’t know where to go. This was in December, during one of the coldest days of the year, and all the snow was blowing in the windows. So I don’t know where he went. All his dreams of fixing up the house and making a community out of the place were totally shattered. You know, there’s all this adversity, and the people who need the most help just don’t get it.
FM: Well, while we’re talking about that, I wanted to ask you about these portraits of prostitutes that you’ve done. And they’re all white prostitutes, if I remember correctly.
Dave: Yes, they’re all white, and that’s obviously not a happy story. In my travels around Detroit, I started to notice all these women standing on the corners. And it was obvious they weren’t waiting for the bus. Of course, there are black prostitutes, too. But in a city that’s 83 percent African American, you had to wonder why there were all these white women standing on street corners. After a while, of course, you realize they’re not only prostitutes, they’re drug addicts as well. And the reason they’re there is because the city allows it to happen. The police sort of pass them by because I guess they know if they write them a ticket or arrest them, they’re just going to be back out on the street again. The drug houses are everywhere, too, and I know the police know where they’re at. It’s hard to see why they don’t bust these places. A lot of times, it’s the neighborhood that gets together to try to force these people out. But the drug dealers are so vindictive, they’ll often retaliate and burn people’s houses down. I mean, I know people who have lost their houses because they went away for a week and they came back and there were drug dealers living in the house. And they just refuse to leave and threaten to kill the family if they keep pushing the issue. So, in some sense, the safer thing to do is let them keep the house.
But this thing about prostitution and drugs in Detroit is like nothing else I’ve seen in any other American city. No one is hiding it. It’s all happening in broad daylight. Many times I’ll be photographing and a cop will drive by and will wave, like, how ya doing? I’ve heard the police have actually warned prostitutes at times about a John that’s very dangerous. A lot of the women I talk with have been arrested, have been in jail, and then just go right back out on the street again because they can’t get the help they need to stay clean. Interestingly, many of these women are from the suburbs. They’re from Inkster or Wyandotte or Southfield or Birmingham. And they tell me they come to Detroit because it’s easy to get the drugs they need. So they come down to live in the city and wind up living under viaducts or in abandoned houses; or they rent a room in a crack house for $10 a night. Sometimes, five or six women will get a house together and they will share it. I mean, I could tell you stories about these women that would curl your hair—what they’ve been through and how the men that pick them up treat them. It’s unbelievable. But this is very much a part of Detroit’s makeup.
FM: Yeah, I actually wanted to ask you about that. You mentioned that, when you started this project, you wanted to tell stories about the people who live there. Do you feel like what you’ve put out there is representative of what it’s like in a lot of the city? Or is this the extreme?
Dave: Well, I think the work is a broad overview of what the city is really like in terms of the people who live there today. But I am always in pretty distressed neighborhoods. That said, a lot of Detroit is pretty distressed. And if you’re talking about the 15,000 or so people who have moved into Midtown or downtown in recent years, that’s a really small percentage of the total population. I mean, my sense is that a great deal of the population is really trying to just cope with life in a post-industrial city. And even though the city has filed for bankruptcy, it’s been broke for years. Living this way has been status quo for a long time, and the bankruptcy is not going to affect the neighborhoods that have been struggling for years and are outside the areas of recent gentrification.
FM: And despite all this, there’s still a lot of dignity in the faces of many of the people you’ve photographed and gotten to know.
Dave: Yeah, I always tell people: I want to do a dignified, respectful portrait of you. And I don’t really like to photograph people smiling. It’s just not how most people present themselves throughout the day. Most people hardly ever smile. I’m looking more for a connection. It’s usually through the eyes. Most of my subjects look directly at the camera. Only a few have looked away. I like that type of connection. I just think there’s more of an emotional cord that’s flowing through the photograph at that moment.
I think most of the portraits project a sense of contemplation, which is sort of appropriate. I mean, the work that I do today, because of what’s happened to Detroit, can often be really sad. When I was shooting back in the ’70s, I wasn’t aware of this as much. I just felt Detroit was like any other city, like Chicago or New York or Cleveland. It was a vibrant place that was maybe going through some transition, but not anything near what ultimately happened to it. So I guess there is a melancholy thread that runs through the current work because of what’s happened there. But on the other hand, I think the people I meet are resilient, proud and strong individuals. They just happen to be in a situation where it’s difficult to survive.