Bruce Weber, Grace, Immanuel & April Archer at Perfecting Church, Detroit, Michigan, 2006, gelatin silver print, 24 × 20".

Bruce Weber, Grace, Immanuel & April Archer at Perfecting Church, Detroit, Michigan, 2006, gelatin silver print, 24 × 20".

Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber, Grace, Immanuel & April Archer at Perfecting Church, Detroit, Michigan, 2006, gelatin silver print, 24 × 20".

In its simultaneously celebratory and critical framing of stereotypical Detroit in its current, postindustrial state, Bruce Weber’s recent exhibition was a welcome visualization of the Motor City. Comprising more than eighty mostly black-and-white medium- and large-format photographs and a ten-minute video (also shot in black-and-white), the show presented cityscapes and portraits taken by the New York–based fashion photographer when he visited the shrinking metropolis on assignments for W magazine in 2006, and for Shinola, the luxury Detroit watch manufacturer, in 2013.

Weber’s representations of the Detroit cityscape emphasize the city’s decentralized nature and its characteristic blending of low-slung industrial, commercial, and quasi-suburban areas. The photographer additionally highlighted some of Detroit’s iconic architecture—Michigan Central Station, Belle Isle, Woodlawn Cemetery, and the Heidelberg Project, an ever-changing outdoor installation of abandoned houses repurposed as eclectically decorated artworks—as well as beloved commercial venues such as the Raven Lounge and the Kronk Gym. As depicted in Weber’s photographs, this is a vast, sprawling city striated by roads and freeways and traversed by car, its streets generally seen from a peripatetic vantage point. Weber’s landscapes, which show spaces of human habitation inscribed by commercial signage and punctuated by logos and dilapidated monumental structures, invite us to rethink the relationship between nature and culture.

In contrast to the landscapes that were exhibited, the photographer used portraiture to present Detroit as a hardscrabble incubator of creative activity. The exhibition interwove Weber’s commercial work—for example, the W shoot of Kate Moss with boxer J’Leon Love—with more intimate, documentary-style photographs, shot during these trips but not published in magazines: beautified images of Detroit civilians whom Weber met and photographed in public spaces such as churches, barbershops, and city streets. Celebrities with ties to the city (Patti Smith and Aretha Franklin) jostled with the relatively unknown—poet Aungelique Patton-James, student Jeremy Marek, and a host of others. In Weber’s Detroit, everyone is equal; both celebrity and everyman radiate the same star power, demonstrating how it’s possible for a seasoned commercial photographer to turn real existences into photographically transmogrified icons.

Highlighting Detroit as an important node in the contemporary culture industry, the show also (albeit perhaps unwittingly) included its own critique—a sense that as people become icons, they lose their specificity. But as “Detroit – Bruce Weber” proved, the culture industry can sometimes represent its clichés with a critical edge. Weber’s best portraits attempt to destabilize the stereotypes that cling to the city. In one, Patton-James stares off into space in the DIA’s Rivera Hall; above her head, Diego Rivera’s rendering of a racially integrated Ford Motor Company River Rouge Plant is visible. In another, the poet lies sprawled in a beanbag chair, her arms entwined with those of Kate Moss, a copy of Cornel West’s Democracy Matters in her hands. Seductively confounding gender roles, the photograph plays with fashion and politics, insisting on both affinities and distinctions.

Detroit, we are reminded, has for many years been powered by violent contradictions. A poster child for the losses sustained by the American working class while the country waned as an industrial superpower, the city has nonetheless retained its vital and diverse creative culture. Despite suffering from every form of division, from the racial to the sexual to the economic, in recent decades Detroit has seen its citizens tirelessly work to strengthen the ties by which they are connected, by reimagining the city as an exemplar of diversity, a melting pot for different cultures, classes, styles, and modes of being. Weber’s show, to its credit, reminds us of this prodigious labor.

Matthew Biro