This is Detroit’s Packard Plant, built in 1903 and once the most modern car manufacturing plant in the world. At its peak it housed more than 40,000 workers. Today it holds another record: it is the largest abandoned industrial building in the world. It is a mind-boggling 3.5 million square-foot ruin. Alley 136 shows a tiny fraction of the entire building.
The Packard automobile was the premier luxury car in the world in the early decades of the 20th century, but following WWII the company’s management made a series of tactical errors. Ironically, while the country was experiencing the post-war boom, with record auto sales, the Packard became unable to compete with the Big Three: GM, Ford and Chrysler. The factory closed in 1958 and the plant was virtually empty after that, except for a few small businesses taking up a small fraction of this behemoth. The last tenant, a small factory of 8 workers, left last year. All remaining security guards were pulled leaving the building vulnerable to attack.
Today the plant is a regular target for budding arsonists who light it up for kicks – there are weekly incidents. But this is a city that made Devil’s Night famous: the Halloween tradition of lighting vacant buildings on fire. In Detroit the numbers are hard to believe: 169 fires in 2010′s Halloween, and this is way down from the average 500-800 Halloween fires per year in the 1980′s and 90′s! Fire crews are called to the plant twice a month, but they have all but stopped putting out fires there, rather than put their men in constant danger.
I shot the plant in the Summer of 2010, but later returned during the day, exploring the area inside and out, and found I could vastly improve the photograph. One big problem was the number of angry-looking gang bangers driving by slowly at night, staring closely at me, my gear, and my friend Anna. This made the first shoot very tense and caused me to truncate what I really wanted to do. I hurried the shot and left with something I wasn’t happy with.
I returned again in September, this time with Tom Holt, a lieutenant in the Detroit Fire Department, who carried a big gun in his holster and wore his police-looking badge around his neck and who gave me the scoop on the plant fires. Gang filled cars drove by several times again, one pimped out car crossed our path several times, but now I was relaxed. Tom would put his hands on his hips, clearly exposing his badge and gun to them, and he would stare them down as they drove slowly by.
One of the ways I needed to improve the shot was by doing extensive light painting. I walked down the very dark road on the right side several times (it was actually more of an alley) with my lighting equipment, firing bursts of blue, then returning to add bursts of green higher up, in the end having lit up the whole side of the plant. This was followed by lighting the sign with a spot; lighting the inside of the walkway to add a little interior light behind the sign; and of course adding the blue in the foreground.
A little error during my lighting shows you how I work. The shadow on the blue pillar (detail image) is me holding up a blue-gelled flash. I hadn’t stood far enough away from the camera and left my shadow behind. I’ll call it a self-portrait!
And below is a shot of the whole plant from above. The red X is the area Alley 136 was shot from.