Researcher looking to re-frame Detroit images

Paul Mayne // Western News

Earlier this summer, Visual Arts graduate student Jessica Cappuccitti curated an exhibition, Welcome to Detroit: Suzy Lake and Orlando Ford, at the McIntosh Gallery. The exhibition offered viewers an opportunity to understand how these images – some of Detroit’s decay and others that capture people with smiling faces and open arms – shape ideas about the city.

In a gritty photo of Detroit, Suzy Lake’s back is turned to the viewer as she photographs an empty lot where her great-great uncle’s house once sat. In the foreground, between the observer and the American-Canadian artist, a passing cyclist throws a questioning look as if to ask, “Why are you in my city photographing its ruins? What are you looking at?”

“And there it is – Detroit and its people looking at Lake looking at them,” explained Visual Arts graduate student Jessica Cappuccitti.

Earlier this summer, her McIntosh Gallery exhibition Welcome to Detroit: Suzy Lake and Orlando Ford was a curated collection of Lake’s photographs of Detroit and featured snippets from filmmaker Orland Ford’s documentary about his city, Where the Heart Is.

Detroit continues to struggle to regain its footing after more than a decade of economic troubles. Many residents left during economic tough times. Those who stayed behind slowly rebuilt and maintained what remained – a neighbourhood park, the corner grocery store, the community barbershop.

Even so, outsiders continue to view Detroit as a city of empty and broken ruins. This is view – looking at those who look at Detroit – is what intrigued Cappuccitti.

“People living in Detroit talk about outsiders coming in, fascinated in their ruins, photographing their city,” Cappuccitti said. “But they do not actually make contact with communities or engage with them in any way.”

She noted how pictures, videos and even news stories have made a spectacle of decay and poverty.

‘1093 Seyburn, Gustav Schneider, 1915,’ by Suzy Lake.

Works like 1093 Seyburn, Gustav Schneider, 1915, 2014/16 and Where the Heart Is highlight the quest of two artists who have spent years trying to counter Detroit’s stereotypically negative image by highlighting communities and talking to people.

Lake was born and raised in Detroit. She moved to Montreal in the late 1960s but regularly visits her hometown. Ford is a Detroit native.

“Their work spoke to each other really well,” Cappuccitti said, because both put people back into pictures and brought their issues to light. Ford’s documentary gave a voice to Lake’s pictures.

Cappuccitti’s exhibition offered viewers an opportunity to understand how these images – some of Detroit’s decay and others that capture people with smiling faces and open arms – shape ideas about the city.

Her exhibition was also a cautionary tale about city planners and policy-makers who manage revitalization projects, but ignore the richness of communities already present.

Welcome to Detroit: Suzy Lake and Orlando Ford also hit closer to home.

In Canada in the past decade, more than 25 per cent of manufacturing jobs have vanished from once-booming industrial heartlands such as Hamilton and Windsor. Much like Detroit, each city is also experiencing renewal. Young professionals are moving into Hamilton to escape Toronto’s rising rent and property costs. Windsor is focused on reviving art and culture.

Cappuccitti hopes revitalization projects don’t ignore the communities already present.

“You don’t forget the old when bringing in the new,” she warned.

“Everyone loves a nice neighbourhood and fancy coffee shops, but people who are already living in Detroit also want nice things – running water, electricity, garbage disposal, and working streetlights, for example.”

City officials and private companies often overlook run-down neighbourhoods during revitalization projects because they do not fit in with the image of what a new and improved city should look like.

Cappuccitti mentions “quiet revitalizations” – a term she borrows from Lake – taking place in Detroit neighbourhoods and communities.

“They are more sustainable than corporate-driven rejuvenations because it is driven by people, rather than capital,” she said.

When speaking to Cappuccitti, Ford told her he wanted the documentary to be truthful, not necessarily positive.

In Where the Heart Is, people who live or used to live in Detroit share their experiences and tell stories of being from Detroit. “Detroit must not forget the people who have been there all along,” Ford said in the documentary.

Detroiters, Cappuccitti added, have no problem with outsiders coming into the city and making it their home.

“It’s about coming into the city with an understanding that there are people here who have been here sticking it out when the going got rough, when streetlights went out and other municipal services got cut. People here want to be acknowledged, seen and heard.”