I approached the scene of a scarred, burned-up wall on the site of the former Motor City Mattress Company in Inkster, Michigan knowing only that its textures were inviting me in. Inkster is a predominantly black suburb west of Detroit that has fallen on hard times. Like its bigger neighbor, it has suffered from its share of vacant properties and urban blight. The Motor City Mattress Company, on the city’s central Michigan Avenue, was a recent sign of this decay, closing in 2011. Apparently, it was in the midst of liquidating what it had left when it was hit by a fire in January, 2012.
The scars on the wall of the adjacent building and an enormous area of white tile floor were all that was left of their showroom.
Of course, I didn’t know the history of the place when I first noticed it. I had simply been attracted to the wall as I was driving by. But as I came to take a closer look, I began to notice the beauty and complexity of the patterns left by the flames and the water it took to put them out. Every wisp or pattern of cracks revealed something of the circumstances under which such intriguing marks were produced. Every crack, fold, and fissure began to tell a story.
When one spends any length of time the Detroit area, such textures and stories are all too common. They can be found almost everywhere, often to startling extremes. Because of this, there’s a temptation to give in to a “scavenging” mindset, much like the scrappers and salvagers that have done so much more damage to the already ruined landscapes in and around Detroit. Yet I am also aware of the risks of side-stepping the economic and structural reasons for such blight. I am aware of the “luxury” I have in turning them into an aesthetic experience framed by my camera and my insider/outsider eye.
For me, such photographic outings are not merely an exercise in plucking beauty and poetry out of whatever is left of a building that once housed a thriving business. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions, and make them visible through my images and words. Engaged in a back and forth dialogue with any complex field like this one, it eventually becomes less about a logical approach, and more of an exercise in listening and imagination. Patterns begin to reveal themselves. The charred, damaged surfaces start to look more like maps of desert communities as seen from space, or ancient runes hinting at long-lost meanings. The shapes of nightmares and daydreams begin to speak. I begin to recall (and feel more of a kinship with) the artistic impulses of 20th-century minimalist painters, whose deceptively simple work spoke of death, decay, beauty, space, and infinity.
Taking the time to see in this way can lead to a nearly mystical state of mind, where forces that are otherwise inaccessible become more apparent. It’s about the black marks and the hints of destruction that took place, but it’s also about taking whatever time it takes to apprehend a space, any space. It’s about engaging with a place, being present with it, and listening to what it has to offer. It’s about treading lightly in the exercise of my chosen art, trying out various framings, rejecting many of them, trusting others. There is no “right” or “wrong” in the exploration. In that sense, it’s not about fetishizing or celebrating a city’s decline. It’s about participating mindfully in the process itself, the cycle of life as represented by a single building, a business, an idea, and what’s left—even after it’s been destroyed.