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Detroit

Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre are two photographers from Paris who met in 2002. Finding that they often photographed in the same places, with very similar results, they eventually decided to work together.

In 2005 they began collaboration on a project that meant, that over the next five years of their lives, they would travel to Detroit seven times. Each of those visits was spent photographing the city’s crumbling, abandoned and dilapidated buildings.

Detroit was once a symbol of the American Dream. The booming auto industry of the 1920s made it a city of growth, affluence and modern thinking. In many ways it was pivotal in the creation of the world we live in today. Now however, it holds an entirely different image. Riddled with gun crime, drugs and arson attacks, poverty is rife and many houses have been left to decay or have been burnt to the ground altogether.

For the residents who remain, these eye-sores are a painful reminder of the tragedy that has befallen their once glorious city. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that upon beholding Merchand and Meffre’s work, ‘The Ruins of Detroit’ can be seen as nothing short of stunningly beautiful.

They say, “At first, in a very candid way, there’s nothing more attractive than visiting something mysterious like an abandoned castle or an abandoned theatre. In a second reading, ruins are very evocative of our human nature and its paradoxes, our spectacular ability to create and self-destruct.”

Merchand and Meffre are not alone in their fascination with ruins. ‘Ruin Porn,’ as it sometimes referred to, is a growing sensation amongst photographers and photo-bloggers. Even the film industry has used Detroit as a backdrop for scenes of American destruction. Red Dawn 2 for example (a film about Chinese communist occupation of America) was shot in Detroit.

It’s easy to see the appeal. The buildings are not only beautiful in a physical sense… beams of light shining through holes in the ceiling, colours peeling away from walls… they are also beautiful in what they represent. They capture the past, present and future. They allow you to imagine the many lives that have passed through them, like an archaeologist looking over an ancient Roman settlement, but at the same time they provide a chilling warning of what the future of the world might one day become.

You can see more of Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre’s work on their website. One of their images was recently used for the cover of ‘The Last Days of Detroit,’ a book about Detroit by Mark Binelli.

Written by Francesca Bassenger
Photographs © and courtesy of Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre.

detroit

Mark Binelli’s book ‘The Last Days of Detroit’ is an engagingly detailed portrayal of a conflicted city. Crime, arson, desperation and extreme poverty mix with art, glimmers of hope, and regeneration schemes.

Chapter by chapter, Binelli guides us through each of these elements aided both by the city’s history and his own. Having grown up in Detroit, his views are not without a hint of bias (or heightened insight depending on which specific point in the book we’re referring to) and rarely without a peppering of ironic wittiness.

Having experienced the boom and subsequent bust of the auto industry, Detroit is city that can’t help but look back with nostalgia at what it once was: A thriving symbol of the American Dream. Now, derelict, empty and lacking even basic amenities those left behind face a daily struggle against crime and poverty. ‘The Last Days of Detroit’ tries to make sense of how it all came to be and, with significantly less certainty, what Detroit will become.

For a while now journalists and photographers have shared an almost perverse interest in the strangely beautiful dilapidation of Detroit’s houses, schools and theatres.

It’s a phenomenon that has earnt itself the name ‘ruin-porn’ (Yves Merchand and Romain Meffre produced an entire photo-book on the subject entitled ‘The Ruins of Detroit’ in 2010.) But this interest is now going one step further with artists snapping up cheap houses and warehouse spaces and converting them into studios. Could this be the beginning of a trendy, arty new Detroit?

‘The Last Days of Detroit.’ was released in the UK on the 10th January 2013.

Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Random House.