Last week Detroit declared bankruptcy – it is by far the largest US city ever to do so. The city is sinking under $18 billion in debt, and a small revenue base. The once prosperous city has shriveled from population flight, and most of the people who remain do so because they don’t have the money to leave.
Three days after the bankruptcy I was downtown late at night, shooting one of its endless splayed open, abandoned buildings.
In my 22 years of shooting the Alleys & Ruins series, where I’ve had numerous close encounters with people who want to hurt me, I have never taken along a cop. By chance, I happen to meet Officer Nate MacRae the day before, and he comes along to watch my back. When I find this location and tell him I plan to enter the pitch black building with my lights, his eyes bug out. “Hold on a sec!! Are you serious?! You could be attacked in there!!”
He pulls out his flashlight, and with his hand on his gun he enters the building with me following from behind. After looking around corners and walking down hallways, he is satisfied. “Ok, the place is clear. And there’s enough rubble that if someone’s in here, you’ll hear them. Plus I’ll be outside.”
As we step out of the darkness, I wonder why I’ve never taken a cop before. This is so awesome! But I know the answer… I’ve always felt it was cheating. I could hardly call my process guerilla style, if I have the city’s finest watching my back.
Part of the draw of my work, and part of my interest in it, is that there is true drama in the night of my shoots. When I started the series, I would go alone. Eventually I started bringing friends and family to watch my back – usually one or two people. I liked the intimacy and the connection to my setting, and the way my senses needed to heighten in these run down locations. And I always believed my tension would somehow be reflected in the final image. I had to be part of what was around me, not just a detached observer. But having said that, and with my experience with Nate, who was superb, I’m willing to have a little less adrenaline flowing in exchange for a little more peace of mind!
The building is nothing special or out of the ordinary for Detroit. It is the remains of Westside Cold Storage and Alley 143 is the main entrance and lobby. Inside, just to the left is someone’s home: a mattress, an old recliner, lots of clothes and shoes… Outside while I’m shooting, a man is pacing nervously back and forth. He has no shirt and what’s left of his pants are torn up rags. Sometimes he’s crouching and stares at a blade of grass or at the fire hydrant. By the time I leave I assume I’ve been shooting in his home.
In March of 2012 the building caught fire. The police suspect the fire was started accidentally by someone using a blow torch to scavenge for scrap metal. The fire spread and someone was trapped by it. Unable to escape, he was forced to the rooftop, where witnesses told reporters they saw the man on fire before he jumped to his death from the three-story building.
I returned to Detroit the following day. Largely due to the bankruptcy, I wanted to see and photograph the locations I had shot over the years. This also gave me a chance to return to Alley 143 and with the daylight explore some more of the interior, and to see the man’s stark home more clearly.
Newcity, one of Chicago’s weekly arts and culture magazines, recently reviewed my Instituto Cervantes solo show.
“Just when we might have thought that there was no more to do photographically with the subject of urban ruins, another shooter comes along with a new take on celebrating decay and devastation. Xavier Nuez is out to make “monuments out of shunned places” by taking his camera out on nocturnal walks through sleazy neighborhoods across our great nation, from coast to coast and through the Rust Belt in between, where he is not deterred by madmen, gang bangers or suspicious officers of the law. Using long exposure times (ten to forty minutes) and walking around his chosen sites flashing colored lights, Nuez produces garish, surreal color images of gutted buildings, blasted theaters, crumbling walls, filthy detritus and fallen pylons that are often festooned with graffiti, tags and aerosol art. The result is captivating; Nuez does not merely fulfill the great Aaron Siskind’s imperative to “redeem the ruins;” he transfigures them. Nuez is at his best when he settles on a ramshackle spot in the foreground where he can look out on the glittering city beyond, as when we are treated to collapsed murky green structures of cracking concrete and twisted metal on the shores of Brooklyn through which our eyes pass to contemplate the fantasyland of gleaming golden Manhattan. Nuez makes us want to stay right where he has put us.” (Michael Weinstein)
My solo show at the Instituto Cervantes in Chicago has been very successful and has been extended to Sept 7. The 23 pieces in the exhibit are from the Alleys & Ruins series.
In May, PBS-TV interviewed me at the Institute, then went out with me on one of my night shoots for the program In the Loop.
Back to Detroit
Last Monday I went to Detroit during the day to re-visit the locations of my previous Detroit shoots. Here’s how they look today.
The Packard Plant is the largest industrial ruin in the country. I’ve explored many parts of it, but it is just incredibly huge. I shot a short video this time around that lets you get a glimpse of its enormity.
The Bond & Bailey machine shop has lost a neighbor and now seems lonely… The graffiti below was on the side wall.
The 2006 Super Bowl was held at Ford Field in Detroit. To avoid embarrasement, the city tried to clean up the downtown area. I was there for the street festivities, and saw they had added lights to the interiors of some of the abandoned skyscrapers, torn down some of the worst buildings, repaired some windows, added doors, created fake storefronts, deported the homeless, and… put up plywood on the smashed window in the alley of the abandoned Metropolitan Building.
Below are images of the front of the building. The hearts and letters have been there for at least a decade.
The neo-gothic Metropolitan building was built in 1924 and was for a time the home to many of the city’s finest jewelers. It was closed permanently in 1977.
The Doll House in the Heidelberg Project survives! Few of the original dolls remain from 2005, when I shot it, and the ones that were still there were bleached and droopy remnants of their former selves. And of course the entire dadaesque Heidelberg project is still going strong!
Alley 69, and many of the buildings along W Jefferson Ave near Zug Island, are now gone. That stretch of road was one of the longest unbroken strings of blighted abandoned buildings I had seen in the city.
And I have never been able to find Tunnel again, but no doubt it still exists.