January 2011: I am preparing for my first real visit to Detroit, the city of my birth. I am a Californian, where I have been since age one when my parents packed me into a car to seek fame and fortune in LA. It is strange to be defined by something unknown but when asked if I am a "native" Californian, I answer, "No, I was born in Detroit." It seems time to investigate what that means. So I have come "home" on my birthday to photograph Detroit.

This blog is part of an accompanying journal about the project.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

 The last trip. 20 visits, 12years.  I had hoped to finish earlier but the pandemic years took their toll and, I suppose some before as well since it seems my last post was 2017, six years ago.

I am just home. Its been a terrific journey with new friends, new perspectives on cities and city life and an overview of a population working together, whether from the standpoint of investment, of education, of the arts.  Detroit is an example for us all and, I will go back.

More than a personal tour, there are many, Detroit expats, as well as newcomers who have been flocking to this city over the last dozen years.

Detroit is 139 square miles, seemingly large but the numbers don't tell the full story. In 2011,  the land looked ready to return to the prairie, so many houses and services at the end of a long period of ruin.  I chose not to photograph too much of teh ruin.  Others had called attention to it before.

Instead, even in that dreaded time, neighbors continued to be close, helping one another.  

Gradually, the old vacant yards turning into multi-functional parks. The plains and grasslands that had taken over, were  now diminishing fast and new condos, refreshed turn of the century houses would stand happily next to one another.

Light poles illuminated the streets and murals have become the view. Wandering alone on the SW Riverfront or soon the Joe Lewis Greenway will allow safe cycling and walking tours of even the outer ends of the city.

There will be more as communities continue to reconnect and the downtown thrives.  

Detroit is not without worry but it is now absent the dire forecasts. of only a few years ago ...

I was so happy to return...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

For years in the music industry, I traveled at the very least once a month.  With the DETROIT:DEFINITION project and several others including a few new book projects, I am doing the same, some decades later and not as efficiently.  So, it seemed time to post the recent update from October 2016.

Since January 2011, I have made 12 visits to Detroit with a 13th one upcoming in just a few weeks for the opening at MOCAD of THE ARCHITECTURAL IMAGINATION, the creative project that was presented last year as the theme of the US Pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennale/Architecture. The exhibit presented new ideas for Detroit and a photograph of mine was selected to be one of twenty printed on postcards given out to the world to represent a current visual perspective of the city.  Those postcards will also be prominently displayed and available at MOCAD.

Born in Detroit but leaving for the California beach at the age of one, I remain fascinated - while freezing - by the winter landscape and there is a part of Detroit that shows itself best then.  In addition to the MOCAD opening, I look forward to exploring further in the winter of Detroit.

My Fall2016 update:  http://us4.campaign-archive1.com/?u=013a28d9f024038bd399086bb&id=398bff9e89&e=[UNIQID]

Since the update, my second French exposition of the in-progress Detroit project was held in Paris during Paris Photo Week and the US election.  Detroit was very much in the news then and now for it represents a microcosm of what is happening around our country.

The sixth anniversary of the beginning of the DETROIT:DEFINITION project fell on my birthday this past week, Inauguration Day.  I started on this date in January 2011 with my own birth home in the Northwest.  It was a significant beginning for my now "family by house," graciously took me in and introduced me to a Detroit that was often in the news when touching on the devastation BUT in realty introduced me to a community, the entire block and many others like them, who had held it together for their families and others and are now key players and examples of the strength that has brought this city back.  How lucky I was ... and am today.  It is within the neighborhoods of Detroit and its residents and business there that the city's power resides.

Below: Scenes from the Avenue of Fashion/Livernois: April Anderson's Good Cakes & Bakes, Eric Vaughn of Eric's I've Been Framed and  Michael Owen mural.

As a photographic project, the actual photography is winding down.  One wants to go on and my relationship with Detroit definitely will, but in terms of my own work, fine art with a touch of documentary, there has to be an end.  Setting a limit on a specific period of change in a city that is so rapidly evolving forces one to interpret exactly that: time that becomes its own chapter in the history of the movement that is Detroit.

Throughout, however, capturing Detroit has been a challenge and a learning curve; requiring understanding of its beautiful buildings, 20th century industrial position and historic accomplishments. It required face to face interaction, even from my own less "on-the-street" approach, to meet and friend so many gracious residents from a highly diverse social, economic and  multi-racial/cultural strata.  It takes time and realization that the city will define me even as I worked to define my birth city for myself. 

Our new American administration is addicted to undercutting the good work and reality of cities such as Detroit and its residents, stating that our country is a disaster.  Notwithstanding, Detroit has actively demonstrated exactly the opposite: a too often maligned place that instead, with only a bit of exploration, represents the best of our county: thoughtful activism and resistance, perseverance and positive change.  Detroit is filled with citizens, public services and business willing to listen to each other and work together.  Even in the past few divisive years of the US, a Republican governor and a progressive Democratic mayor have worked successfully together in accomplishing much for the city's revival.  Active long-time residents along with newcomers have created forward-looking  and successful programs for city growth including issues of sustainability, diversity; social and business-advancement and job opportunity.

I am more than lucky and grateful to be so often in Detroit at a time when so much of this progress is happening and results are already evident.  Detroit is now a blueprint for America itself.

Here are some recent views:

Friday, March 4, 2016

Two Additional visits to Detroit - Now Five Years(!) and Recent News

Since the last post in October 2015, two more visits to Detroit have filled in many blanks in terms of my quest to define my birth city, not only for me.

My latest visit in January 2016 was celebratory not only for my birthday but also for my 10th visit there in five years for my DETROIT:DEFINITION photographic project. It has been my luck to have been in Detroit at this moment.

From the day the project commenced - my January birthday in 2011 - Detroit has changed rapidly and dramatically.

In local, national and international news in that first January, Detroit was about decades-long devastation, unemployment, population reduction and ruin. And so it seemed, on that very first visit and cold, wintry impression.

That said, what had not then and still has not changed: the warmth, persistence and determination of its residents to forge ahead and work for change.  In this sixth year now, that change is happening quickly and Detroit's presence to the world is not about despondence but about growth, community and enterprise, developing now not only in the downtown area but expanding out to its metropolitan suburbs.  It is a story continually evolving and one that continues to intrigue me.

For the visit, among many other subjects, I wanted to capture a sense of the early industrial history of the city and that history seemed best approached in the midst of a Detroit winter.

It has been such a busy year+ that not even all of my images are yet downloaded but here is one from that series.

There will be more to come, not only from this traditional industrial view but from new and exciting enterprises, but in the interim there is GREAT NEWS: At this year's prestigious 2016 Venice Architectural Biennale, the US Pavillion is featuring Detroit and as an adjunct to the proposals by amazing architects for the project, 20 photographs representing Detroit have also been chosen in competition and one of them is mine!

My Venice Architecture Biennale participation announcement (with explanation of the image as well) can be viewed at

I am also more than delighted that many of the newspapers and other media announcing this photographic competition award have chosen my exhibition image as their lead photo, including the front page announcement from the Detroit Free Press! 

My thanks always to this city for allowing me so to learn so much about it.  The project continues as I work not only to capture the remaining of my "to do" list but to formulate the book/exhibition project.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Back, Back Again, Going Again...

From the look of the blog, it would seem I have not been thinking of Detroit since I posted before my March 2015 trip there, visit #7.

To the contrary, Detroit has been totally on my mind since then for I had been offered an amazing opportunity to exhibit this in-progress project in Europe in the fall in Lille in France's northwest in connection with a major festival: Lille3000/Renaissance, an examination of five international cities in the midst of positive change.  DETROIT:DEFINITION at the Maison de la Photographie in Lille opened on 24 September and is about to close this coming weekend.  I was privileged to share this large and wonderful exhibition space with Guillaume Rivière, a well-known French photojournalist who photographed Detroit also this past March for the French magazine, IDEAT.

With a slew of new images from seven visits to France (now eight!) and a greater focus on what I wanted to capture in Detroit, the exhibition - almost 50 prints of mine!-  was terrrific, the opening beautifully planned and filled with so many French and others totally fascinated by what is happening in Detroit, a symbol for so many of how a city first decimated by the loss of a major industry - like Lille as it happens with the loss of their major textile industry - can gather itself together and restart its soul.

And while my French could use some work, I found myself giving interviews in French, writing and translating and/or working with translators on my exhibition essays all about this city founded by the French in 1701 by General Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac.  The exercise certainly sharpened and slowed down what I had to say and focused me better on this longterm project, bringing me a personal, eye-opening perspective on a grand American city that has been a poster child for centuries now: of America's strength in people and industry for the first half of the 20th century; for the decline of that American dream in the second half and, now well into the 21st, an international model of revival and community collaboration, not yet finished but certainly on its way.

My exhibition catalog with French and English text is available for online viewing at issuu.com.

At the vernissage (opening), a softly played video with the music of Sixto Rodriguez (aka "Rodriguez") set the theme for the exhibition which was, ultimately, about the people of this substantive city I am learning so much about.  Installation shots follow.

My great thanks to the Maison de la Photographie and the city of Lille for this opportunity.  I believe I will soon have some further good news about exhibiting in France.

Soon to follow: reports and visuals from my last two visits to Detroit and where the city feels now but for the moment, here is my exhibition.  I look forward to soon bringing it back to the States.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Returning...and catching up...

As I prepare to return to Detroit this next week, I realize the blog has been ignored lately and it seems normal for I often post more when I am actually in Detroit, capturing current observations. 

This past six months, especially late 2014 and early winter 2015 became busy - an exhibition of work from my REVISIT.RENEW.NEW series at the SarahLeePROJECTS booth at PhotoLA and the multitude of art fairs that happen in Southern California in January and February.

At PhotoLA, I did bring three additional large prints from the DETROIT:DEFINITION project as well, all from my photography shoot in November of Wayne State's new Multidisciplinary Biomedical Research Building between Woodward and Cass, a terrific example of repurposing and expansion.  The block had been formerly inhabited by the Daigleish Cadillac Building, originally designed by Albert Kahn in 1927 to house the Walter J. Bemb Buick-Pontiac dealership. 

The architects, Harley Ellis Devereaux Corp., designed an inspiring building full of glass and light while saving the original showroom facade on Cass.  Outside of the new addition, the reflective glass mirrors a fast-changing neighborhood and soon, the M1-Rail will appear in these windows as well.

In the interior, the third floor retained the original roof of what was originally the indoor auto storage area, complete with driving ramp; the latter now replaced by those gorgeous multi-paned south-facing three story windows and open lobby.

 I am returning to Detroit the week of 16 March and look forward to seeing the construction progress for the building is set to open soon.

And in fact, development and re-development as well as a search for Detroit's architectural wonders seemed to be the theme of this past November exploration as I caught snaps of an amazing church, toured a Minuro Yamasaki building, and grabbed some outside snaps at Mies van der Rohe's Lafayette Park.

I had a chance as well to capture some images from the return of the Livernois Avenue of Fashion - great shops, restaurant - the 1917 American Bistro ! - and well worth exploring.
I wandered north of 7 Mile but I hear that just south it is coming back as well.

A sample of my work from previous visits as well as these past two in Fall of 2014 is incorporated into my newest "Scouting Update," a continually revised booklet sampling some of the work from these Detroit visits.  It can be seen online - DETROIT:DEFINTION/SCOUTING UPDATE20110-02014 - at issuu.com

One goes to art fairs to show, to buy, to covet and to find inspiration - and this year, to exhibit as mentioned at PhotoLA -  and during this winter's moment in Los Angeles last January/February, I wandered from opening to opening (Art ContemporaryLA), a book fair (Printed Matter LA Book Fair), a major photographer's talk (Simon Norfolk), listening to Bach's St. Matthews Passion sung by the Master Chorale at Disney Hall and then off to the Paramount Ranch/Art LA fair in the Malibu Mountains, an old movie ranch where I rode as a child with my father through the western town sets.

All of it is helping me narrow my focus about Detroit as I see how other artists - we all do learn from and are inspired by others - take their own personal stories, their own curiosity and form it into narratives for others.  The DETROIT:DEFINITION project, originating originally with my own curiosity to see the city of my birth,  is captivating me, changing me and allowing discovery not only of this evolving city but of myself as well and society as well.

I look forward to being there again.

Here are recent articles and books I have been reading recently on the city:
When You've Had Detroit  by Rollo Romig
A Detroit Anthology, Ed. Anna Clark.  (So far I've read Marsha Music's beautiful essay, "The Kidnapped Children of Detroit")
thanks for the view, mr. mies: lafayette park detroit