A Summer Weekend in Detroit, Mich.

A Summer Weekend in Detroit, Mich.

The Motor City

Detroit is a giving city. It’s given us techno, assembly lines, Motown, the auto industry, Diana Ross, Jack White, Eminem, Sheefy Mcfly and an infinite number of other artists, chefs, tradespeople and good, hardworking folk. Various lists ranking cities based on size, have placed it anywhere from 19th to 24th in the U.S. Take those rankings and throw them out of your Chevy or Dodge though—as your driving 85 miles per hour on I-75, like a real Detroiter— when it comes to people with grit, work ethic, creativity and pluck.

Detroit, MI
Camera: Mamiya 7

The resilience of The D, and the people there, comes from the fact they’ve had to be. Talk about Detroit with anyone that hasn’t been there and stereotypes usually begin: it’s crime-ridden, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous. So when I finally had the chance, years ago, to check it out for myself, I took it. I was working as a photographer at The Times Herald (Port Huron, Mich.) at the time, during the recession of 2008, and Detroit was only 45 minutes away.

Detroit, MI
Camera: Mamiya 7

Traveling west on I-94, the skyscrapers of Detroit—the Renaissance Center, One Detroit Center, the Penobscot Building, etc.—came into view. With that as the backdrop, communities started presenting themselves along the interstate. There was eye-catching graffiti and people playing music outside in their neighborhoods; what struck me immediately was the grandeur the houses and buildings displayed. Their conditions ranged from renovated to a strong breeze away from becoming a pile of lumber, but oh were grand.

Detroit, MI
Camera: Mamiya 7

To start my Detroit sojourn properly, and to fully connect with the Motor City, I parked my car in a garage across the street from the famous Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island and walked toward said establishments. Adding to the list of what Detroit has bestowed us, include these blessed creations that include hot dog, bun, chili, onion and mustard. To write what they are and say they’re good is like saying Frank Lloyd Wright built a house.

A Portrait Session of an Amazing Detroit Artist—Sheefy McFly

On my most recent trip to Detroit, I was able to meet up with Sheefy McFly, a phenomenal artist and talent in many fields. McFly gained some noteriety for being arrested by Detroit police officers for painting a mural…for the city of Detroit.

He was completely down for allowing me to make some portraits of him and I’m ever grateful. We met along Gratiot Avenue near one of his murals. If it was the only portrait I was able to make in Detroit, I could’ve returned home pleased. McFly was friendly, agreeable, patient and unhurried. I’m thankful for his time I hope to photograph him again in the future.

Prior to that, I’d been photographing in downtown Detroit for the better part of the day. To have plenty of time to photograph is a gift and it wasn’t one I took for granted. The light was low and beautiful and I found myself encountering wonderful scenes; the buildings of Detroit are already so amazing, they make perfect backdrops.

You may’ve viewed some photographs and thought, I wish I was that lucky, or, my timing is never that good. I’m here to tell you, it has nothing to do with that. Here’s advice: It’s not about luck or timing, for the most part, it’s all about increasing your chances by getting out there and doing the thing, which is photography.

Thank You to Lawson, a Great Samaritan

I’d awoken on a Saturday and recently finished an authentic Mexicantown breakfast at Evie’s Tamales; it was a breakfast of heuvos rancheros—if you only have coney dogs and heuvos rancheros, there are far worse gastro-experiences in life. Far worse. Moving on, the historic neighborhood of Corktown was next on my list of explorations. Corktown is where the Detroit Tigers used to play.

Driving along Michigan Avenue I saw a tipped-over trash can and thought, what a shame. I turned along some side streets and doubled back to Michigan Avenue, covering over some of the same ground as previously. Except on this trip, there was a man who had pulled over and was picking up the trash. I feel completely at ease conversing with anyone, for better or worse, but I had to meet this person so I pulled myself and exited my vehicle, with my camera.

After a few steps toward the man, I introduced myself and we struck up a conversation. His name was Lawson and he was cleaning up the sidewalk and street because he felt it was the right thing to do. “It just ain’t right,” Lawson said. This is where he was born and raised. Our conversation was brief…but it was real. This is what it’s about. Here was a citizen of Detroit; he noticed rubbish on a sidewalk and he took it upon himself to do something about it. It’s very Detroit, there are numerous other “Lawsons” and it’s one of the many reasons Detroit is so unique and amazing.

Lawson. Detroit, MI
Camera: Mamiya 7

Thank you Lawson, and see soon Detroit.

Detroit is a place where we’ve had it pretty tough. But there is a generosity here and a well of kindness that goes deep.

~Mitch Albom

13 thoughts on “A Summer Weekend in Detroit, Mich.”

    • What an excellent place to work and play! I can’t believe the transformations taking place in the D. Every time I’m down there something incredible is happening. Thank you for your comment!

  • Fantastic photo story. And I enjoyed that these were shot on a medium format rangefinder. There images are truly unique in how they convey the scale, not only of the place, but of the people too.

    I wonder if you can recall the film you were shooting with. I’d love to add it to my too shoot with. Though the colors lead me to suspect it may be a Fuji stock long discontinued.

    Thanks for the inspiration. – Tobias

    • Hi Tobias! Everything has been photographed on Kodak Portra 160 and 400. I used to use 160 a little but with the 400, I’m ready for a lot of different scenarios when the light begins to dim, so I’m using that almost all the time now. I’ve not tried Fuji but if it’s discontinued, I better not try it in case it’s really, really good. Hope all has been great with you.

      • I think I can see the 160 in the colors of a few of the shots. Though I much prefer the look of Portra 400.

        I’ve always had mixed experiences with colors with 160. It really seems to like a lot of light. Portra 400 on the other hand seems much more reliable. I’m currently working my way through a couple rolls of Portra 800 for my next film review. The review is taking a while because 800-speed film is not something you can/should use all the time.

        Do you still have the Mamiya 7? I’ve heard wonderful things, and it would seem so have others since it is not cheap at all anymore.

        • Hi Tobias, I really look forward to reading your review of the Portra 800; if anyone can put that film through it’s paces and accurately review it, it’s you.

          Way to take your time through the rolls of film; the temptation to fire off those last film frames can be strong, but we must resist the urge.

          I’m looking at the Mamiya 7 right now as I type this, waiting patiently for the next time I’m able to use it. Everyone’s equipment choices are personal, but the Mamiya 7 is amazing. Not having checked the camera’s value or market price lately, I’m not sure what the Mamiya 7 is worth. I’m a frugal person so fortunately I’ve purchased some good camera gear before it has become popular or worth a lot. If you want a camera that’s crazy sharp, easy to use—that is, if you’re accustomed to rangefinders; if you’re not, I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it quickly—Mamiya 7 is the one. It’s quiet and the negatives always come back exceeding what the scene appeared like. Some say it’s not very durable but I take care of my equipment and have never had a problem.

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