detroit michigan "packard plant" "motor city" abandoned urban ruins "light painting" "night photography" "art photography"

Alleys & Ruins no. 136, Motor City (2010, Detroit, MI, 9:30pm)

Alleys & Ruins no. 136, Motor City (2010, Detroit, MI, 9:30pm)

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 complex in the US and possibly 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 in 2009. 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 first shot the plant on a Summer night in 2010, and then returned the next day, exploring the area inside and out. The entire abandoned complex was epic with a capital E, and I realized then that I had failed with my first attempt and would have to return to re-shoot this incredible location. 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 rush the process, and to not think clearly. 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 fireman's 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.

(This was the second time Tom had backed me on a Detroit shoot. The first time, in 2004 for Alley 63, he carried a baseball bat, and threatened any one who even looked at us!)

So... this time, I could breathe easy, knowing I was safe. I was able to calmly frame the heart of the plant. I also had the time and patience to do the extensive light painting necessary for such an enormous scene. 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 (prominent in the middle foreground) 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!

 

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Updates:

Despite many years of neglect and abuse, the reinforced concrete structures remain mostly intact and structurally sound. Portions of the upper floors of several small sections in various buildings have collapsed or been partly demolished and lie in ruins in the wake of several aborted attempts at demolition over the years. The City of Detroit has pledged legal action to have the property demolished or secured. Dominic Cristini, whose claim of ownership is disputed, was said to be conducting construction surveys in advance of full-scale demolition as of early 2012. 

As of 2020 the building remains largely the same, although the famous Motor City bridge over Grand Boulevard collapsed in 2019.

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