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One Photog’s Ruin Porn is Another’s Postcard Image

Detroit photography can be broken down into two camps: Pretty or gritty. (Some might get comical and add a third rhyming adjective, but we’ll try to keep it clean for the kids.)

That’s the basic philosophy of Michael H. Hodges, one of my favorite wordsmiths still pounding the keys at The Detroit News. Yup, he’s pretty amazing with the writing stuff and, it turns out, an impressive photographer.

Hodges started taking pictures of Detroit actively when the News let him start an architecture blog. He decided to illustrate it with his own work – although he hadn’t touched a camera in years. Tally up those images and you get “Unexpected Detroit,” Hodges’ postcard series that shows off what he considers the best side of the city.

Sure, there is TONS of Detroit photography. There are PLENTY of talented photographers out there. Indeed, many may have more experience and artistry than Hodges. But I love the thought behind his work…that you don’t have to wait until a dark, gray, rainy day to stalk the city’s decrepit ruins to get a controversial photo. In fact, you can look for a sunny day. And that those photos just might be lovely to look at as well as send to a relative.

“I’ve always thought of Detroit as a visually stunning city. It’s an odd city and a lot of the beauty is on the bleak side,” Hodges told me. “New York City was a wreck at one time; people kind of forget that.

“(This is) my attempt to explain to people how I see beauty in the city, even in parts of the city that seem sad. If you get sad after you cross 8 Mile Road, you’re not doing the city any good. The city needs people who curious – who are able to see possibility and interest,” Hodges added.

A little about Hodges. His family has been in Metro Detroit since the Civil War. His grandfather got wiped out by the Depression, so he moved out of the city and to his one last holding: A dairy farm in Rochester. The family stayed there until Hodges was about six – and that is where his love of decay started. Because nothing falls down quite as spectacularly as an old barn.

Hodges spent a few years in New York, but he came back to Detroit when the News came calling. He was unemployed and seeking something else, so he came willingly. Hodges has been at the News for 20 years now. While writing is work, his passion for the visual arts fueled his foray into photography. He chose to display his works in a postcard format, mostly because he loves that kind of thing.

“It really is a populist art form. My mental image of any number of cities is based on postcards,” Hodges said. “Years ago, I collected cool moody postcards of the city – I loved to send them out more than standard tourist crap. … And I was looking for something that said ‘Detroit’ on it, but there’s not a lot of choices out there.”

So why put “Detroit” front and center? “This is an urban area with this ego issue. (The postcards) needed to say Detroit right out there, unapologetically,” Hodges said.

So he created two sets of six: One set is known as Detroit “pretty’ and the other is the city as its “gritty” best. The Pretty ones are of standard architectural landmarks like the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Michigan Central Station, Guardian and Fisher buildings.

The Gritty group is off-beat Detroit “that is beautiful and moving and oddly profound. I’ve always loved collapsed industry – that’s one thing that always exhilarated me in New York City. There’s a sort of industrial Disneyland quality to me. They’re cool and scary because they’re big and overwhelming but also touching and profound,” Hodges said.

“I look at the Packard Plant and think of the tens of thousands of men who spent their life in the plant (and) I get this missionary desire to show people how to see Detroit in more interesting and uplifting ways, especially the parts that aren’t gorgeous. Photography can help people see things differently.”

Does Hodges – an art and architecture writer – feel miffed when people do what some call “ruin porn,” or photography of Detroit’s broken houses and commercial buildings?

“I know they ignite people. I believe in the power of images to frame perception. And I totally understand why people get upset about the photography that’s been done about Detroit. This is not a neutral city – it’s an object of national concept. But, personally, I don’t think we have any right to tell people want they should be interested in,” he said.

“If there are hipsters in Detroit who want to see Packard plant, we shouldn’t hector them. We should take them box lunches. They might be outsiders, but they’re not laughing at these buildings. They’re moved by them,” Hodges added. “It’s not contemptuous. It’s about great human effort and, in some ways, tragedy.”

And there’s his hope that what his camera sees as broken now will be repaired someday. And if one picture – no matter if it’s on the cover of Time magazine or in his postcards – inspires a revolution of renovation, then Hodges is all for it.

“My feeling is there was a huge watershed in 2008 with the financial collapse. It changed the national attitude toward Detroit. That’s when the rest of the nation caught up to us then. My sense is the Glen Becks, other idiots and blowhards in other parts of the country look at Detroit with new curiosity and sympathy and interest that wasn’t there before.”

It’s such a fascinating mess, isn’t it?

As part of its Scholar Series, the Detroit Historical Society will host Michael Hodges at 6 p.m. Wed., April 13, at the Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward Avenue. This program will feature a slideshow and Hodges’ views on alternate ways of interpreting Detroit, as well as a discussion of the city’s architectural high points and the abandonment that characterizes so much of the cityscape.  In addition, he’ll take guests on a photographic tour of the long-abandoned Packard Motor Car plant. For more information, call 313-833-1805.

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9 comments on “One Photog’s Ruin Porn is Another’s Postcard Image

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