“Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes, small pieces of history in suspension. The state of ruin is essentially a temporary situation that happens at some point, the volatile result of change of era and the fall of empires. Photography appeared to us as a modest way to keep a little bit of this ephemeral state.”
So decrees the mission statement of photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, authors of The Ruins of Detroit. These intrepid two have approached the waning city of Detroit as a fallen American colossus, navigating buckling floors, curlicued shards of lead paint and dust covered relics they document the industrial capital’s last gasp. The gas lights and auto plants that once pulsed as a beacon of twentieth century gumption and ingenuity are presently abandoned. “Ghost town” status is closing in.
Contemplating abandoned cities and the lost art of another age brings to mind ancient civilizations like the Maya or Inca, not a contemporary American city. It’s startling to see the infrastructure of a metropolis left to crumble, especially when opulence isn’t such a distant memory.
Marchand and Meffre have sifted through debris in abandoned courthouses, churches, schools, dentist offices, police stations, jails, public libraries and swimming pools, all of which have most of their original fixtures and fittings intact. In an interview with The Observer, Meffre states that, “As Europeans, we were looking with an outsider’s eye, which made downtown Detroit seem even more strange and dramatic. We are not used to seeing empty buildings left intact. In the Vanity ballroom alone, we saw four giant art deco chandeliers, beautiful objects, each one unique. It was almost unbelievable that they could still be there. It is as if America has no sense of its own architectural history and culture.”
Looking beyond all the foregone treasures, the crumbling infrastructure, and the staggering rehabilitation necessary to revive a city of this scale, there lies a heady question: Does every city need a return to relevance? Is rehabilitation of ghost towns even possible or, dare I say, necessary? Should we quietly retreat as cities turn to dust, looking toward something less fragile?
Learn more about the men behind these desolate images with this interview in The Observer, and be sure to spend some time with their melancholy photographs of a city’s last gasp.