It often happens that news events create a new context for existing photo projects, and such is the case with Philip Jarmain’s photos of Detroit in light of the city’s recent filing for bankruptcy. Jarmain’s series American Beauty documents architecture from a pre-Depression era Detroit — a time when the city was on the rise. They now stand in contrast to its current rock-bottom economic straits.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of photographers have flocked to Detroit during the city’s long slide, documenting its demise and creating an entire category of “ruin porn.” But Jarmain sees his work as optimistic and uplifting. Whether his photos stand as a goodbye to a glory forever passed or an inspiration for what the city could be again, is a matter of perspective.
“What I’m trying to do is document these buildings carefully and with craft,” Jarmain says. “The buildings are part of a history filled with ingenuity, innovation and entrepreneurship. They’re part of a record that is about brilliant minds coming together to create the capitalist frontier and the middle class of America.”
Jarmian is Canadian, but he has strong ties to Detroit. His great grandfather played for the Detroit Symphony, his grandfather was an architect in the city and his uncle was the head of PR for Ford.
“I never really spent any time there growing up but I’ve realized that I have a stronger connection to the city than I thought,” he says.
Jarmain started the project in 2010 and during the past three years has traveled to Detroit from his home in Vancouver nine times to make pictures and collaborate with locals, such as Sean Doerr, concerned about preserving Detroit’s rich architectural legacy.
He shoots with a Cambo Technical Camera (an architectural camera) and a Phase One digital back. When he prints the photos he makes them immense — 4×6 feet or 5×7 feet — because he wants viewers caught up in the details that make these buildings special.
“I want people to be able to look at the small elevator in the bottom corner of the picture and easily see the hand-engraved details in the door,” he says.
Many famous architects, such as Albert Kahn, helped the city become an architectural hub, and Jarmain’s title, American Beauty, is named after Kahn’s American Beauty Iron Building. Even though Detroit is shrinking and structures are being destroyed almost daily, it still has one of the country’s best collections of late 19th- and early 20th century buildings.
Jarmain says he tries not to judge the city for demolishing structures in an effort to shrink its enormous urban footprint. He also understands people are stripping the buildings because they desperately need money or supplies. He just wants to make sure he can get as many buildings recorded as he can before they disappear.
He thinks Detroit will eventually climb out of its deep financial hole. It has suffered one setback after another, the the city’s troubles began decades ago, but he’s met many passionate people using every ounce of energy they have to keep it alive. Detroit was once one of the country’s most creative and important cities and he suspects it will rise again.
“I love this city and I really think it has the opportunity to bounce back and come full circle,” he says.
Photos from Jarmain’s American Beauty series will be at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco between September 7 and October 20.