Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Midcentury Pittsburgh and "Detroitism"

Posted By on 02.14.12 at 11:41 AM

For last week’s paper I reviewed “Teenie Harris, Photographer,” the new show installed into a first-floor hallway at Harold Washington library. Charles "Teenie" Harris shot pictures for the African-American newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier in the mid-20th century, focusing particularly on a neighborhood called the Hill District, which was home to a thriving black middle class. Its members are whom Harris is concerned with—though the social upheavals of the 60s and onward lurk in the background of this show, they're secondary to Harris’s chronicle of black social life. I was struck, looking at the show, at how unusual was this fairly sunny portrait of African-American life—a product of a different sort of urban environment, for sure, but also of the intentions of the person behind the lens, who was, according to his son, "disturbed by the negative manner in which African Americans were depicted by the Hollywood movies and the white press."

That surprise reminded me of a powerful essay I read last year, “Detroitism,” in the online magazine Guernica. In it, John Patrick Leary talks about the ways that Detroit is represented in the media, particularly in what he says is locally referred to as “ruin porn,” the tendency to aestheticize the city’s economic and physical disintegration—the opposite, in other words, of Harris's project. He worries, persuasively, that to consider Detroit as nothing more than a symbol is to strip it of its history—to elide the political, social, and economic processes that make Detroit what it is today.Three types of Detroit stories, Leary says, are common: the Metonym, “the trope in which a complex thing is replaced by a simpler, easily recognized equivalent”—“Detroit” as shorthand for the conditions that have befallen it. There’s the Lament: “typically mournful in tone—elegiac at best and sanctimonious at worst.” And there’s Detroit Utopia, as exampled in a series of New York Times articles about “bicycling and one-hundred-dollar houses” in Detroit; they “anticipated a gentrification-fuelled Detroit Renaissance that most honest observers must admit will never come.” Through all of this, Leary is in particular considering two books of photography in the ruin porn genre:

In viewing Detroit Disassembled and The Ruins of Detroit, one is conscious of nothing so much as failure—of the city itself, of course, but also of the photographs to communicate anything more than that self-evident fact. This is the meta-irony of these often ironic pictures: Though they trade on the peculiarity of Detroit as living ruin, these are pictures of historical oblivion. The decontextualized aesthetics of ruin make them pictures of nothing and no place in particular. Detroit in these artists’ work is, likewise, a mass of unique details that fails to tell a complete story.

It’s a moving, provocative essay; read it here. You can also view the enormous collection of photos that the Teenie Harris show draws from at the Carnegie Museum of Art's website.

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