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Wednesday, August 6,2014

Power of the people

‘Detroit Resurgent’ features works by French photographer who captures spirit of Detroit

by Bill Castanier
Not all summer reading necessitates a whisking away to exotic locales. “Detroit Resurgent” is a photography book by Parisian photographer Gilles Perrin and documentarian-interviewer Nicole Ewenczyk. The book showcases the portraits of more than 60 Detroiters taken by the world-class portrait photographer accompanied by poignant interviews by his partner.

The behind-the-scenes development of this book makes for a wonderful story all its own. Both Howard Bossen, an MSU photography professor, and John Beck, associate professor in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, had a hand in making this book a reality. They provided point-of-view essays, but what isn’t said is how they worked diligently to make an idea become a book.

The journey started in 1988 when Bossen met Perrin and Ewenczyk at the Rencontres d’Arles, an international photo show in France. Perrin does documentary photography cycles that are intimately associated with occupations. He uses a largeformat camera. His shoots are complex, requiring long setups. When Bossen ran into Perrin again in 2008 at the Houston FotoFest, he suggested Perrin and Ewenczyk visit Michigan for their next project. Bossen enlisted Beck, who coordinates the Our Daily Work, Our Daily Life program at MSU, to bring Perrin to Detroit to photograph Detroiters at work. But once the idea was laid out and the project unfolded, a new facet was added.

“This is too good — it has to be a book,” he said. That’s when MSU Press stepped up to be the publisher. The photographer spent three weeks shooting in Detroit in the summer of 2012.

“You just don’t walk into a General Motors plant and start shooting,” Bossen said. Although much of the shoot was planned, Bossen said Perrin likes to see “where the shoot goes.” The city may be bankrupt, but the book’s photos seem to say, its people aren’t. The people who will remake the city are among those in this book: Artists, musicians, small business owners, poets and those involved in the local food movement.

Beck contacted his old MSU friends Larry Gabriel and W. Kim Herron, former editor of Detroit Metro Times, to serve as guides, helping the editors identify potential photo subjects. The approach seems to have worked: The book’s photos represent an incredible cross section of Detroiters without resorting to boosterism — this is no Chamber of Commerce poobah hustle.

Gabriel, a journalist, writer and musician, was also enlisted to write an essay on Detroit for the book, jazzily titled “detroit dreams: no rust belt scene.” Herron was one of the subjects. The book, and its collection of stunning portraits of Detroiters is in a sense a modern-day adventure spanning two continents, two languages and a city that in everyone’s imagination says is on the brink of Armageddon. Not so, says Beck.

“The book is about the power of the people of Detroit and the power of their ideas and their passion for getting stuff done,” Beck said. “Everyone thinks there is a monolithic answer to Detroit’s problems, but the interviews and essays in the book show that the future of Detroit is being invented person by person.”

It can also be easily used as a travel guide for Detroit providing for a grand summer adventure. Bossen sees the book as unusual since it is not just an exquisite collection of portraits. They are paired with interviews, an essay and a poem. He also offers in his essay an intriguing look at documentary photography and the mind of a photographer.

“It really doesn’t fit any category (of photo book), but it does show an awful lot of people doing pretty amazing things at all levels of society,” Bossen said. “It clearly shows that the perception of Detroit does not extend to its people.”

All the 60-plus photographs in the book can be viewed at MSU’s Detroit Center in Midtown Detroit and the editors plan on a map detailing locations of the public places used in the book. The recently published book “Canvas Detroit” (Wayne State Press) offers up another way to look at Detroit and not just through the popular lens of ruin-porn photography. Editors Julie Pincus and Nichole Christian teamed up to explore more than 300 works of art in the city ranging from murals to a Banksy installation that was cut out of the Packard plant.

Perhaps stencil artist Nicole MacDonald describes the overall feeling of the book best when she says, “I’m really driven by an old Italian anarchist idea: Let your voice be heard and do it out on the street.”

And speaking of street art, world famous Detroit artist Tyree Guyton has been recreating abandoned homes into spectacular works of art for 27 years. In 2013, arsonists destroyed three of his homes, leaving only four of the original seven homes. But Guyton will not be hindered. He writes in the book, “My art is a medicine for the community.”

Expect something to rise from the ashes of Detroit.

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