DETROIT — If you’ve never lived in the Midwest, you might be unfamiliar with the specific, eerie, and unmistakable quality of light that indicates the potential onset of a tornado. The sky becomes ashy and matte and seems to recede into the distance, and the light takes on a strange, diffuse quality, even as it becomes hyper-bright — as though the atmosphere is a scrim being lit from behind. Under these conditions, all objects stand out in stark definition, each seeming to radiate with its own aura and importance. These are the ambient conditions that photographer Dave Jordano has somehow managed to invoke in each of more than 100 stark and empty cityscapes that are featured in his new book, A Detroit Nocturne, released in April by powerHouse Books. Jordano is a native of Detroit, but has been based in Chicago for a longtime, and this ongoing series begun in 2016 (currently divided into eight separate nocturnes) demonstrates the photographer’s interest, over the last decade, to reappraise his hometown.
Jordano prefaces his images by quoting a passage from John Updike’s Trust Me: “But cities aren’t like people; they live on and on, even though their reason for being where they are has gone downriver and out to sea.” This quote is suggestive of a particular attitude held by some native Detroiters — perhaps especially particular to those who made their way out of the city during its nadir — that their city is gone and never coming back, that it is a city without direction or purpose. This is clearly not Jordano’s only take on Detroit — his previous six-year series, Detroit — Unbroken Down, presents sunlit and vital views of the city and its residents — but in a nocturnal mode, Jordano seems to dwell in the desolation, almost exclusively presenting selections in the book from his hundreds of nocturnal photos that are utterly devoid of people. Sometimes there is a lit window in the background, and in “Nightclub, West Chicago Street, Westside” (2017) a streak of red betrays the passing of taillights, but for the most part, there is no evidence that anyone remains in Detroit at all.
Even when Jordano takes as his subjects some of the most heavily-trafficked areas of the city, it appears eerily empty. That he was able to achieve a completely desolate image, for example, of the Eastern Market, which is clotted with day-tripping suburbanites by the thousands every Saturday, but also traversed during even the small morning hours by meat market and produce exchange workers and patrons, is really something of a feat. It reinforces an idea that I, a transplant Detroiter in my ninth year here, learned early on about the city: it is a place where a lot of things can be true at the same time. This city was never abandoned, and has always been the stage for human drama and activity. But Jordano’s lens is biased toward Detroit’s uncanny and gripping emptiness — and it is absolutely true that he has no shortage of barren, semi-industrial, semi-pastoral subjects from which to choose.
Whether or not this presents a balanced view of Detroit is, of course, beside the point, and does nothing to diminish Jordano’s stunning camera and lighting work, and his knack for framing. Without the chaos of humanity to reckon with, he is free to concentrate on the shapes made by buildings as they cut across chalky skies, the shading of entropy across monochrome buildings — painted that way, no doubt, in a cost-saving measure — and the ultra-bright high contrast of artificial lights and “OPEN” signs that seem ironic, given the desolation. The pictures are crisp, and the odd tornado-lighting gives everything a supernatural, hyperrealistic air. This place may be empty, but there is no sense, in Jordano’s images, that it is unimportant. In his nighttime tableaux of bar and party store exteriors (the “party store” being Detroit’s answer to the bodega), makeshift basketball hoops on residential streets, and unmarked buildings, Jordano beautifully handles another truth about Detroit, one that I, as a much less professional photographer, continue to find challenging: it is hard to get a wide enough angle to capture the essence of Detroit.
Just as many truths coexist here simultaneously, the paradoxical beauty of Detroit is in its sharp contrasts: the overgrown adjacent to the meticulously maintained; the preponderance of hand-painted signs that may or may not indicate the actual business in residence; a mural of a thriving community garden next to a snow-strewn vacant lot beneath a blazing McDonald’s sign; the hopeful and the despairing. In “Housing Development with Power Station, Eastside, Detroit” (2016), the brightly-lit smokestacks of the utility complex rise ignominiously above a row of cookie-cutter housing, which are being kissed by what looks like magic-hour orange light (but cannot be, based on the ash-gray conditions of the sky in the background). These foreground structures, which would be very much appropriate in a bland, suburban setting, take on a sense of the uncanny with the power plant looming in the background. These homes are dark, quiet, and have no cars in their driveways; it is possible they are entirely unoccupied.
Across each of these moments, Jordano builds to a crescendo with Hicthcockian pacing. There are two ghosts of citizens that make the pages. In “Closing Up Shop, Gratiot Avenue, Eastside, Detroit” (2017), a man with his back to the camera bends to lock the roll gate on Edward’s Barber & Beauty Salon. In “Overnight Mission, Michigan Avenue, Westside, Detroit” (2016), a male figure in coveralls slouches, head hunched over arms propped on knees, on a bench outside the closed New Life Rescue Mission in Corktown. “WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED?” asks the building, in big, hand-painted letters. Aside from these two figments, neither of whom seems aware of the camera, Detroit is a ghost town before Jordano’s lens, and I found myself picking up the pace as I moved through the book, desperate for some sign of life to abate the tension.
Jordano delivers. In the book’s second-to-last image, “Fire Damaged House, Eastside, Detroit” (2017), a man sits on the front steps, in direct contemplation of the camera. Though the former window of the little house is boarded up, perhaps against the eponymous fire damage, the front windows emit warm light through peach curtains. On the sidewalk, just off center in the image, the man’s bike sits on proud display, red LEDs lighting the wheels. It is a calm, self-assured image. Someone is home after all.