Work Catalogue: Dave Jordano
Photography by Dave Jordano
Dave Jordano was born in Detroit in 1948. He received a BFA in Photography from the College for Creative Studies in 1974. In 1977, he established a successful commercial photography studio shooting major print campaigns for national advertising agencies. Jordano's work can be found in the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and more. His current ongoing project, Detroit: Unbroken Down documents the cultural and societal changes of his hometown.
I wanted to reveal stories about these people who have become victims of a broken system but found the resilience and resourcefulness to give meaning to their lives — Dave Jordano
Tell us about how you first start photographing around Detroit. Did your subjects come on naturally or did you make a conscious choice to focus on more lively character studies?
I started working in Detroit as a student in 1970 at what then was formally called the Art School of the Society of Arts and Crafts, now the College for Creative Studies. My early influences were photographers like Walker Evans, Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, and Garry Winnogrand so my documentary roots were well established even before I entered school. Detroit was this amazing place that beckoned discovery and exploration. As a suburban kid growing up in Royal Oak, Detroit provided a backdrop that was rich in cultural, racial, and social relevance. I worked with both 35mm and large-format cameras at the time creating distinctly different bodies of work. As a student this was the perfect environment to experiment and develop as a photographer and even back then I saw myself as a social documentarian, someone who needs to be out in the world in order to express their point of view and Detroit was certainly the perfect place to make that kind of work. Because the school was downtown it seemed only natural that I became familiar with the city and have it become my stepping off point.
When we look at your 35mm shots, there is a sense of timelessness in the subjects. You have captured life in an authentic moment. You mention that you were just a college kid with a camera — do you feel that youth contributed to the pureness of capturing these subjects?
Was there a kind of timelessness to the work I was doing back then? Hard to say, really. Time and distance have a way of creating a sense of nostalgia I suppose, but at the time it was just real life. People were going about their lives, doing what they do; I was just trying to be a visual storyteller. Most of the 35mm work I did was really more of a daily diary of my crosstown wanderings. Serendipity, luck, and being in the right place at the right time were keynotes to making that kind of work. Detroit was certainly a more vibrant place to be in at that time. The streets were full of cars and people were all around, especially in the downtown area where office buildings were full of workers and storefronts were abundant with shoppers who still came to buy things. The sheer amount of material to photograph seemed limitless at the time, and heading out to photograph with a few rolls of unexposed film was always an exciting time. I also spent an entire summer photographing along the riverfront during the weekly city sponsored ethnic festivals. I used a 4x5 view camera for that project and made many portraits of street vendors, spectators, and people involved with each week's ethnic activities. This work took on a more deliberate and forward-looking approach, which became more of a study in social typologies. I do remember one guy that was always present at the festivals and his name was “Dirty Dinky.” He had to be about 75 years old and stood about five-foot, two-inches tall. He flirted with all the women and he was covered with these big buttons that he made himself that had sexy quotes on them which he would sell for two dollars each. I saw him several times and each time I took his picture.
Although it may be easy to fall into the trap of shooting the abandonment of Detroit, you mention that it was not contributing to or challenging any notion of the city. How do you feel about this constant depiction of Detroit? And what did you do to consciously change that?
Because of Detroit’s mono-corporate culture, it was dealt a particularly heavy blow in terms of job loss. Coupled with white flight and racial tensions (which are equally to blame), the city is now left with 30,000 abandoned houses and 80,000 abandoned lots. “Ruin porn” is the common term used when describing the process of photographing abandoned and neglected buildings, which Detroit is infamous for. It’s easy fodder to photograph, and to be honest, there is some validity to documenting it so that hopefully we become aware of the destruction and learn from our mistakes. There wasn’t anyone who was photographing the long-term effects of those who have been impacted by the slow, relentless destruction of the city. People who were unable to leave because of their economic status, who were left to cope with the spoils of living in a post-industrial city. So I turned my attention to the many neighborhoods and enclaves of the city to discover something about the people who are struggling every day to get by. Detroit can be an easy city to live in but also fraught with many challenges, making the DIY mentality a very real and necessary component in determining one’s survival. I wanted to reveal stories about these people who have been marginalized and who have fallen between the cracks through no fault of their own: good people who have become victims of a broken system but somehow finding the resilience and resourcefulness to give meaning to their lives. This is what I felt was missing in the overall perception of what people thought of Detroit. I wanted to say that there was more to the city than this empty, dystopian landscape devoid of any life.
Do you think that Detroit lacks a fair representation photographically?
You can look at Detroit from many different perspectives. I am only one person and how I visualize the city might not sit well with some people. I accept that. When I started coming back to Detroit in 2010, the city was still in a state of constant decline. It had not yet fallen into bankruptcy and the city, for all practical purposes, had been operating in a status quo mode of dwindling resources for decades. This was the Detroit I discovered on my early return trips. Since its reemergence from bankruptcy last year, Detroit’s entire public-relations image has shifted to the revival of the city and its redevelopment in an attempt to shake off its negative past. People are actually moving back into the city! This is in all ways a positive step forward of course, but Detroit still has a long way to go in terms of bringing equality to all the residents of the city. Those areas outside the redevelopment zone that consists of Dan Gilbert’s realm and the Ilich family’s holdings have so far experienced minimal benefits from the city’s restructuring. Everyone talks about the Woodward corridor between Campus Martius and Warren Avenue. There, the population is increasing, vacancy rates are near zero, and 40% of the city's jobs are located in that area. But that constitutes roughly only 7 square miles of a city whose total land mass is 138 square miles. It is my hope that the work I’ve done will be in some small way a reminder that there still are tens of thousands of residents who remain outside those areas and need someone to represent them.
Do you draw similarities or comparisons to the industrious and bustling 1970s Detroit to the creative catalyst of this 2015 version?
Well, by the mid 70s, Detroit wasn’t much of a bustling, industrious engine of commerce. In fact, as a center for manufacturing it was well on its way to declining, by then. Detroit peaked around 1950 with a population of 1.8 million. By the late 70s it had lost over 600,000 residents, and another 500,000 since then to white flight and black flight. Detroit may never be the giant it once was, but so what? Let it evolve now to become something else. In time, all things take on new form and with the current flow of positivity coming into the city who knows what will emerge? Hopefully a better city for all. I just hope that it’s spread out in a democratic way.
Could you talk about how your 35mm lead into your other projects?
I really didn’t feel comfortable with the unpredictability of working with a 35mm camera all that much so I gave it up after only working with it one for a year. I preferred the view camera and the method of working where creative decisions were concrete and solidified. I also liked the big negative and the quality it produced. So for that reason the rest of my career involved working with large-format cameras.
Does returning to Detroit after working elsewhere effect the way that you view the city?
Yes, of course, how could it not? You can’t help but feel for Detroit and its residents for what’s happened there. It’s the saddest story of all. More devastating than Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy when you actually consider the scale of destruction that’s taken place. The thing about Detroit is that it didn’t happen in one quick catastrophic event that makes front page news, but progressed slowly over time. The slow pace of it seemed to lull everyone into a state of numbing acceptance. When I came back after being absent for over three decades, the shock was as powerful as witnessing any major natural disaster, except this was man-made and as a society we only have ourselves to blame.
When you made the change to digital photography did you find the ease of access and rapid proliferation of images change the way you photographed the city?
Certainly the proliferation of images on the Internet showing Detroit’s ruination had an effect on me. Pictures were everywhere and that’s all the media was reporting about. It made my decision to photograph the city from a different point of view that much easier, but certainly not any easier from a working perspective. I wanted more depth and storytelling and I knew that it would take an enormous amount of time and effort to sort it all out in order to accomplish my goal. In a way, I hope that what I’ve done in Detroit is a kind of visual poem that gives credit to the city’s diversity and strength of its underprivileged population.
Your most recent project Detroit: Unbroken Down will be released as a book soon. Could you give us a summary of the project and tell us about the meaning of “Unbroken Down"? What was the selection and editing process?
These photographs are my reaction to all the negative press that Detroit has had to endure over the past several years. I wanted to see for myself what everyone was talking about, and like everyone else I was initially drawn to the same subjects that other photographers were interested in: the crumbling factory, the empty lots and burned-out houses that consume a third of the city, and the massive abandoned commercial infrastructure. It took me a week of shooting this kind of subject matter to make me realize that I was contributing nothing to a subject that most everyone already knew much about — especially those who had been living there for years.
To counter this, I began looking at the various neighborhoods within the city and the people who live within them. This human condition, while troubled, struggling, and coping with the harsh reality of living in a post-industrial city that has fallen on the hardest of times, does thrive. This demonstrates that Detroit is not the city of death and decay that everyone was reporting in the media, but one that shows signs of human activity and movement. However, notwithstanding the recent press about Detroit’s efforts to rebound from its recent bankruptcy (which is in all ways promising) my focus continues to rest on the current conditions that affect many of those who have fallen through the cracks: forgotten and marginalized poor people whose lives will only minimally be improved by the recent redevelopment of the city.
The term “Unbroken Down” simply refers to the opposite of broken down: a vernacular automotive term used when your car refuses to work anymore. I saw Detroit and its people as examples of not being broken, but surviving as best they could considering the circumstances.
The editing process is always difficult because you have to leave out so much good work. It’s never easy; you just hope that what was selected will get your story across. There are over 90 images in the book and almost all of them involve people in one form or another. That alone makes the project different.
You depict a very real aspect of Detroit life and humanity. What is the biggest take-away for a viewer of this project?
To have compassion for those who are less fortunate but are equally proud of who they are.