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Decline and renaissance: Photographing Detroit in the 1940s and 1980s

Aelbrecht, Wes 2015. Decline and renaissance: Photographing Detroit in the 1940s and 1980s. Journal of Urban History 41 (2) , pp. 307-325. 10.1177/0096144214563500

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From images of major transport infrastructures and housing blocks, to drug rehabilitation centers, vacant lots, and abandoned industrial warehouses, the City of Detroit has been one of the most photographed of all cities since the 1940s. Although much has been written about the historical legacies of urban change in Detroit and beyond, far less is known about the photographic collections that participated in the redevelopment of Detroit since the postwar period. This article therefore seeks to chart and unravel photographic depictions of two cycles of decline and renaissance: urban renewal (1940s–1960s) and city-center renaissance (1970s–1990s). How photography participated in these two cycles of production, reproduction, consumption, and display of photographs will be analyzed by focusing on citywide groups such as the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Committee of Detroit (1940s), Mayor Coleman Young’s image-led campaigns produced by the Department of Public Information (1970–1994), and social documentary photographer Camilo José Vergara’s ruin park proposal (1995). In their search for a community of shared interest to manipulate how the Detroit citizen had to look at their city, the Citizens’ Council of Detroit, the author argues, embodies Vergara’s discourse of decline as well as Young’s renaissance vision. In sum, this article offers a history of an overlooked factor in the redevelopment of Detroit, namely the role played by and given to photographs, and as such contributes to the current debates on Detroit’s photographic image exemplified primarily by ruin porn.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Architecture
Publisher: SAGE
ISSN: 0096-1442
Funders: Arts and Humanities Research Council and Fulbright Fellowship
Last Modified: 05 Nov 2020 12:00

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