Andrew Moore’s “Detroit” (on view at Yancey Richardson until 9 January 2010) is a body of work that invites knee-jerk interpretations, especially since the image of Detroit as a symbol of American decline has lately been used so widely as a simple and obvious cliché in magazines and newspapers. There even is a name for such imagery now: “Ruin Porn” (see this post) - that’s when a photographer travels to Detroit to take photographs of ruins, for the sake of a simple visual titillation.
We must resist the temptation to dismiss this exhibition in such a simplistic way a priori, because it does not do the photographer any justice. We must also accept the possibility that we might decide at the end that “Detroit” is indeed little more than Ruin Porn. But, and this is the crucial bit, for us to come to a conclusion we must think about what these images of Detroit might tell us. This process involves going beyond a reasoning that merely mirrors the simplicity we accuse Ruin-Porn photographs of having; and for this kind of discussion alone, “Detroit” is a worthwhile exhibition seeing. Maybe it will take us away from all those oh-so simple narratives.
It is maybe a bit too tempting for this review to take up one of the many possible strands and to then infer that, yes, “Detroit” is indeed Ruin Porn or, no, “Detroit” is not Ruin Porn. Just like I personally prefer photography that make me think - instead of telling me what to think - I like reviews to make me think about the work - instead of telling me what to think about the work.
The imagery in “Detroit” is more varied than one might anticipate. There certainly is a lot of decay, but there are a lot of views I had never seen before, including a few details - the most arresting one maybe being the one where a molten face of a clock looks as if it was right out of a Salvador Dali painting. As much as comparisons with Dali work sound corny, seeing this image makes for an actually very surprising and quite bizarre experience. Detroit’s ruins containing the surreal - well, there is something new, isn’t there? Maybe this is all just a dream, and a country like the US would not literally have one of its largest cities resemble a modern-day Pompeii?
And there are still other strands that I keep weaving in my head.
That said, a review of “Detroit” would be incomplete without a few words about the image quality. Most of the photographs in the show are rather big (for obvious reasons, given the amount of detail in most photographs), and I think many of them have some issues as far as colours and sharpening are concerned. Some of the colours seem to have been tweaked to make them look almost artificial, and many of the photographs have suffered from oversharpening. Knowing Moore’s earlier work, I found this disappointing.
Image quality aside, “Detroit” is a show that might trigger some thinking about Detroit that, as I indicated above, exceeds the usual, somewhat lazy thinking (“American decline”). It would seem to me that not only do we owe this to the city itself, but also to ourselves.