A photographer friend once told me the secret to her mystifyingly good home interior shots: “The trick is that you have to go through and clear away everything that’s a part of daily living,” she said. “Tissue boxes, cat toys, magazines — all the signs of life. That’s how you get a polished-looking interior.” Once you’re aware of that, those Dwell magazine spreads become less impressive: The people on display are not truly evolved humans with no need for clutter; they’ve just pushed the standard chaos of life on Earth outside of the frame.
I feel a similar sensation paging through Detroit: The Dream Is Now, a glossy compendium of the city’s places and people by photographer Michel Arnaud. It’s not not Detroit, but from the perspective of someone who lives here, it’s also not quite the Detroit that I’m familiar with. The everyday mess of the place has been cleared away.
That’s not a bad thing, per se. Arnaud does a great job of capturing some of Detroit’s architectural treasures, like the Pewabic-tile interiors and Tiffany glasswork of the Guardian Building lobby; New Center One, with its copper-green crown; and the regal, historic homes of Boston Edison and Brush Park. The book is divided into four sections that seek to overview the buildings (and places of special interest to Arnaud, personally), art scene, design scene, and food scene of a city that is in the throes of rampant new development. Due to the accessibility of Detroit spaces compared with those in other major metropolitan centers, the city has become an attractive destination for artists, designers, restaurateurs, property developers, and social practitioners seeking to set their dreams into motion, and Arnaud captures a relatively diverse cross-section of both old-school citizens and come-latelys.
“There are people in the book, either in portraits or as part of a scene or present in interviews or essays if not in pictures,” said Arnaud, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “I am interested in the design ideas in the interior spaces but also the people and the stories of how they came to be.”
It’s true that the book is peppered with interviews and portraits, as well as essays anchoring each section by local heavyweights, including writer Lynn Crawford reflecting on the art scene that she holds dear and tirelessly champions. But there’s also an essay by Jennifer Conlin, whose 2015 piece for the New York Times, “Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit” raised hackles and eyebrows all over the city for its myopic view of development. (Conlin, it’s worth noting, is one of the NYT’s go-to writers about Detroit, despite being based in Ann Arbor.) But it seems to me that these photographs have a dearth of people, nonetheless. Over time, in Detroit, one comes to realize that this is not a place of standalone personalities, but one of communities. That any event sees a gathering of some 50+ people represents a real triumph of the human spirit in a place that went empty and forgotten by all but a determined core of old-school guardians — stubborn and no-frills in the best sense. Paging through this book, I feel their absence.
For example, Arnaud’s image of Belle Isle features a interracial trio of Millennials rowing a canoe on a pond, but it captures none of the raucous family cookouts and reunions that are the reason the place has long been known as “Detroit’s backyard.” There is, of course, no obligation to showcase this aspect of the island — and avoiding it may represent a respect for people’s privacy — but at a moment when the new type of Belle Isle recreationist threatens to replace the old, it is perhaps a problematic omission. Similarly, the four-page spread on Detroit’s historic Eastern Market somehow avoids capturing any hint of the close-pressed crowd of thousands that flock to the market every weekend. Despite Arnaud’s claims that there are people all over the book, there is a kind of mismatch that is undeniable to someone familiar with these environments.
“The audience for this book is anybody interested in resurgence of postindustrial cities,” said Arnaud. “People who love Detroit, Detroiters who left the city and are fed up with a negative vibe that the city still inspires, people who might be interested in moving there, and of course, those who might enjoy a good-looking book! And, yes, of course, my hope was to raise Detroit’s profile in a positive way.”
For this, credit is due: Arnaud almost entirely eschews any hint of the ruin porn that is an irresistible temptation to photographers at first exposure. In a city that has had to exhort people to “Say nice things about Detroit,” Arnaud’s book is overwhelmingly complementary, which is a lovely thing. His conscientiousness on this point is likely due to the length of his engagement with the project, which unfolded over three years and 10 roughly week-long trips at different times of the year to illustrate the book. But in spite of this all-seasons approach, there is a kind of uniformity to the imagery — the pictures with snow on the ground do little to capture the deep dreariness of a Michigan winter, and the book’s subject matter almost entirely misses the explosion of planned and unplanned agriculture that breaks loose every spring and summer.
There is nothing wrong, really, with a desire to put a best foot forward for the camera. It is patently unfair to impose my personal love of Detroit’s scrappiness and informality as the governing aesthetic of all materials showcasing the city. And yet, there is something complicated in promoting a cleared-away aesthetic that results in literally clearing away the people who have been here, doing the best they can, with little help, for such a long time. A smooth finish is a luxury of people who have made it past barely hanging on — and a lot of Detroiters are still barely hanging on. The book has a vibe that suggests an appeal to more heavily resourced investors in the design and development community, not the people who already know and enjoy Detroit’s environs as they are.
Arnaud’s book makes an inarguably fine addition to any Detroit-lover’s library, and it is not my intention to make it the sacrificial lamb in the ongoing battleground around gentrification in the city. But is also serves as a timely reminder that, in removing the chaos of everyday life to make a nice picture for the camera, it is crucial not to take away the elements that make Detroit real, vital, and colorful — with no assistance from high-end design firms or generational wealth. As Arnaud’s title suggests, the dream is now, but it’s important to remember that Detroit is not only a dream — for those who live here, it’s a reality.
Detroit: The Dream Is Now is now available from Abrams Books.