By Micah Walker, Guest Writer
On the wall is a picture of a house during the summertime. The front yard has transformed into a garden, as it is filled with flowers and overgrown bushes. But the object that stands out most amongst the greenery is a statue of the Virgin Mary.
This picture comes from the lens of Carlos Diaz, one of the artists showcased in Cardiovista: Detroit Street Photography at the Berkowitz Gallery. Organized by Assistant Professor of Art History Nadja Rottner, the exhibition showcases 10 photo essays by Diaz, as well as Brian Day, Bruce Harkness, and Tom Stoye. The four artists capture Detroit over the course of five decades, snapping pictures in areas such as downtown, midtown, and Southwest Detroit’s Mexicantown.
“Streets are like arteries, and the city is like a body,” said Rottner when explaining the reason behind the name of the exhibit, Cardiovista.
She said she came up with the name during a discussion in her art history class, with cardiovista meaning the street “visualizes the heartbeat of a city.”
During the 1950s, street photography began to surface in Detroit and other urban areas around the country. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the art form became popular in the Motor City said Rottner. Viewers have a chance to look at the art in its early stages from Bruce Harkness’ two photo series, Cass Corridor and Poletown.
Taken between the years of 1977-1980, Harkness shows the decline of Cass Corridor, a neighborhood known for its underground art scene in the 1960s and 1970s. But by the end of the 1970s, the neighborhood has given way to plight surrounded by poverty and crime. Through his photographs taken in an apartment complex, Harkness presents the struggles residents of Cass Corridor experience, now having to live in a city on its way to decline.
Poletown, taken from February to December of 1981, shows a neighborhood on its way to extinction, much like Cass Corridor. The destruction of Poletown came following the news of a new General Motors plant set to be built that year. In one picture, Harkness has three children pose for the camera, the construction of a street being stripped in the background.
Tim Ammons, former student and current exhibition coordinator of the gallery, had a chance to meet Harkness and the other three artists when they visited the gallery to hang up their collections last month.
“I like Bruce because he’ll tell you a story behind the photo,” said Ammons.
While Harkness captures Poletown, Carlos Diaz trains his focus on Mexicantown. He takes pictures of houses around the neighborhood, as well as three immigrants in the series, Beyond Borders. Southwest Detroit has now become home for many Mexican immigrants, and Diaz shows how the residents find a balance between the two worlds.
Diaz also created a series of the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn. The collection of photos presents the exterior of the plant, as well as simple, but significant shots of what a factory worker’s day might look like.
From 2005-2014, Tom Stoye developed his photo series, How Green is my Valley. The title is taken from the 1947 film and 1939 novel, “How Green Was My Valley.” While the book and movie depict the lives of residents in a dwindling coal mining town, Stoye uses this approach for the city of Detroit. An example of this is a picture of an abandoned building; a local artist spray painting the words “Who is Detroit?” with a big question mark hanging above it.
In his series Time Traveler, Brian Day inserts himself into his photos, playing a fictitious businessman, always with a briefcase in hand. The picture “Everything Will be Alright,” has him standing in the street amongst a pile of shoes. This was the photo that stuck out to Ammons. He wondered why there was hundreds of footwear tossed in the street and later he would find out.
“The shoes were supposed to go to the homeless, but the company ended up leaving them on the street.”
In the catalog, Day explains the shoes were donated by Tyree Guyton, the creator behind the Heidelburg Project. He came upon the street soon after the dumping of the shoes.
Like “Everything Will be Alright,” the rest of Time Traveler series is depicted in black and white. It even becomes surreal at times, as the self-taught artist transports himself to an alternate universe, while exaggerated storm clouds loom overhead.
“It has been a great privilege to work with these four photographers on the show and get to know their work better,” said Rottner.
Along with making an appearance at the Jan. 19 show reception, Day, Diaz, Harkness, and Stoye visited Rottner’s Museum Practice Seminar class to be interviewed by her and students.
“It was an exciting experience for the art history students,” she said.
The ARTH 410 class even got a chance to help with the show, the 14 undergraduates assisting Rottner with the Cardiovista catalog.
The exhibition is going on now through March 13. The Berkowitz Gallery is located on the third floor of the Mardigian Library. The gallery is open Monday-Friday from 9a.m.-5p.m..