The All-American Photographer Takes on Detroit

Detroit has landed on hard times, but there is still vibrant life left. Iconic American photographer Bruce Weber captures the characters and places that show the city’s true spirit.

06.18.14 9:45 AM ET

There is a breath of fresh air filtering through Detroit.

Over the past decade, the Michigan metropolis has been plagued by a series of negative national headlines: a fledgling economy followed by an inevitable bankruptcy; a city suffering from uncontrollably high levels of crime and violence; a once promising center for American manufacturing falling into disrepair.

But, that’s not how Bruce Weber sees it.

The legendary fashion photographer-cum-filmmaker, who made a name for himself in the late ’80s/early ’90s with gigs for Calvin Klein, and Vogue and Interview magazines, is celebrating the city’s culture and people with a new exhibit, DETROIT—BRUCE WEBER, on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

Bruce Weber

Despite Weber’s passion for everything Americana (he’s been referred to by photographer Michelle Andonian as “a gatherer of American stories”), the photographer didn’t visit the then-declining city until he was 60 years old.

“I heard a lot about Detroit,” Weber tells The Daily Beast over the phone while road tripping to the exhibit’s opening. “I had this word ‘Detroit’ in my head since I was in high school because I was listening to music from Motown all the time. And I said, ‘Where is this city [with] all these singers and composers?’ Then years went on and I heard about all the problems they were having and all the troubles, about how people were abandoning [the city], and how we were losing Detroit. How America was going to lose Detroit.”

It was 2006, and Weber was shooting a story for W magazine, working alongside the glossy’s then-creative director Dennis Freedman. The editorial, “Welcome to Motor City,” appeared in the magazine’s September 2006 issue and starred Kate Moss, whom Weber describes as “the only person we [could] take there,” at some of the city’s local joints: the New Bethel Baptist church, the Michigan Central Train Station, the Old Miami bar. “Kate just gets along with everybody. When she’s with a person you just meet on the street, she has a relationship with them instantly in such a nice, sincere way,” he continues, highlighting the Detroit natives also featured in the spread: students from Cody High and Charlotte Forten Academy, poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett, artist Tyree Guyton.

Sure, the locals were styled to the nines in Gucci, Chanel, and Dolce & Gabbana, but there was something about the natural rawness of the city and its people, something Weber describes as “gritty” and “beautiful.”

“It’s inspiring, because the people that you meet on the street, they have their own way of talking and their own way of walking, and what they decide to wear can be a total statement of personality. That’s the best way I can describe [Detroit].”

Weber’s photographs for the exhibit—which were taken over the years following the 2006 trip—encapsulate the culturally-vibrant city that many, particularly those who are only exposed to Detroit through the news—have never experienced, nor are aware even exists. Influenced by Robert Frank’s series “The Americans” and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photojournalistic work on the city’s automobile industry, Weber sought to bring positivity to Detroit’s seemingly abandoned landscape. He photographed National Champion Boxer Janelson Figueora showing off his medals. He captured a dapper looking student, Jeremy Marek, leaning against the side of his car. He shot a grinning parishioner outside the Perfecting Church.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

“Church is always a good place to go to,” Weber explains, when asked how he stumbled across his subjects. “It’s funny, Robert Mitchum always said to me—I’m making a film on him, so I can quote him [Laughs]. I’m not just dropping his name or anything—‘When I first go into a town, I always check out the chief of police and try to meet him, and I look for a blonde.’ I decided I know a lot of blondes in my life being a photographer, so I don’t have to do that. But OK, I’ve got to find something that I should check into. I always thought a church was a good place because you see such beauty. The way everybody comes to Sunday Mass, it’s a really amazing experience. So that’s where I go. I go to a church.”

Aside from the city’s parishes, Weber looked to the Detroit Pistons and the “Hair Wars,” a competition between local hairdressers that he laughingly describes as “[having] that Parisian feeling during the collections,” for inspiration. He visited graveyards and local restaurants, schools and parking lots, and presented them all in an artistic—yet realistic—way. In the process, he captured the true spirit of Detroit and its people, all bankruptcy, crime, and urban blight aside.

“When I first went [to Detroit], things were pretty bad… Repairs hadn’t happened [and there were] a lot of abandoned buildings. Gradually, I started seeing some gardens popping up—vegetable gardens—trees being planted, [and] people taking the time to repair their homes… New businesses were opening up; people [were] getting jobs. It’s amazing to think that a city can dissolve itself. But it can, very easily. The thing about Detroit that’s really special—like there is something special about New York City or a lot of other cities—it’s always about the people. Don’t you think?”

DETROIT—BRUCE WEBER is on display June 20 through September 7 at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).