He Only Kinda Gets It: Bruce Weber and the Truth about Detroit

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Before I begin, I’ll tell you right now – you don’t know Detroit.

You are taught to fear our “crime ridden streets”, but you don’t know how it feels to be walking down on our sidewalks. You think you’re watching a once shining beacon of the Midwest crumbling to the ground before the rest of the world, but you can’t understand that with every breath I take, I can feel the city slowly waking from its dormancy, rising up and raising its people with it. You assume these false pretenses because that’s what they constantly whisper in your ear; mainstream media gravitates toward the dark, the depressing, the tragic – because that’s what sells and makes for a sexy story. Seldom does it tell you that just about every stranger you pass will greet you with a genuine smile. The early morning newscaster doesn’t want you to know about a new inclusive culture arising from of our city’s pockets, a culture with a strong aesthetic sensibility. Which reminds me – I’d like to introduce you to someone.

Meet Bruce Weber. Between June 20 and September 7, he had an exhibit titled Detroit at the Detroit Institute of Art. A world renowned fashion photographer and filmmaker (featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair, the usuals), he was in town in 2006 for a W Magazine shoot with Kate Moss. But he found much more than a great backdrop for his photographs: a city unlike anything New York or Paris could offer. And rather than being struck by our “all-encompassing desolation,” he became fascinated by our energy as a unified city, our vivacity through our people.

I enjoyed his mostly authentic approach to his photographing – walking absentmindedly into the little barbershops he passed along the block, following his nose into buzzing restaurants, casually chatting up the people on the porch.

Weber runs with themes atypical of perceptions of Detroit, such as androgyny and strong feminism. I appreciate when he juxtaposes the traditional with the new.  Young aspiring dancers blow blue lipstick kisses and sass the camera like they were born with their hand to their hip; a woman clad in full zebra print with a smize that would make Tyra jealous. Jeremy Marek, a then 17-year-old with tattoos and seductive bad boy eyes to match, looking Frank Sinatra spiffy in a wide brim fedora and a suit and tie. Something about this theme stays with me; it reminds me of Detroit’s rich past while making me excited about where we are going next.

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I am also fascinated by his portrayal of children as young adults – a subject that hit very close to home for me -growing up as an only child around all adults makes you mature fast. I felt with the little girl looking down in her wedding-white dress, glitzy tiara and all. Asia Newson, dubbed Detroit’s youngest entrepreneur and a 11 year old whom I’ve actually met before, shows the laugh and demeanor of a 40 year old woman. Weber makes more of these juxtapositions, perhaps to convey this line that Detroit is currently toggling, that between heading directly into our future and using our past to help us in our present. All of this is not to say that I praise the man in the bandana; rather, there are still some certain aspects of his 2006 work that I did not agree with.

My largest criticism of the exhibition was the inclusion of Kate Moss. Sure, she was there for the magazine shoot, but if Weber truly wanted to display Detroit’s vibrancy, what connections does Miss Moss have to the city, and how at all does she represent our people? Wearing next season’s Dior romper and Louboutin sandals in an abandoned apartment doesn’t cut it for me. To speculate her presence, I go back and forth between two ideas. One, perhaps she represents the glamorization of the Detroit story – full of abandoned buildings, extensive graffiti (that I truly appreciate) and crumbling older architecture, we have the perfect “griminess” that photographers travel for miles for. Photographers from all over flock to capture the scenes of an empty room with chipping paint, smashed windows, and an eerie gray glow. Placing Kate Moss in the middle of such places only brings further attention to an overdone subject. Where are my people? Why is he not showing the Detroit that I see?

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Second, which I think might be more applicable to our current situation, is the gentrification of Detroit. If you listen to those in Detroit who have stayed with us during both the good and bad times, they’re being pushed away, out of the city. As property taxes start to skyrocket and more people flood downtown, it’s hard to ignore the landscape gradually turning from black to white. I’ll admit, I love seeing the new companies that now line the once deserted lots and the throngs of creative business and tech people who stand in line for their early morning coffee fixes. But I am not for the white gentrification of Detroit, but rather for its black revitalization. The way in which Kate Moss and the other white model command power over the black subjects in the photographs is more reflective of not what the city needs, but of the opinions of Bruce Weber, the gentrifier.

Bruce Weber’s childhood and livelihood are so far removed from an upbringing or lifestyle in Detroit. He says he understands our city after living 2 months here but he has only experienced our city; I want to see his work when he has lived Detroit. When he decides to show Detroit’s grittiness, it often feels staged, posed, unauthentic. Save the blank and pensive faces for Kate and the other models, for a different exhibition; if you’re going to include the people of Detroit, I want to see the honest expressions of those people. The subjects he displays run the gammot of “fashion-world” (strong feminism, androgyny) and through them, he artistically expresses his aspiration for gentrification. What’s more, a wealthy white model included in an exhibition that is supposed to represent the culture, the vitality, the aura of a largely black populated city is simply wrong.  It makes me question the legitimacy of calling the gallery anything near acclaimed.

While I commend Weber to be able to accurately capture a pivotal moment that could change Detroit’s future forever, I think he too readily ignores our past, a history that cannot so easily be separated from our present. I’m dying to see more people realize the vibrancy of this special city, but I also don’t want a false picture to painted. I still wait for that day, when I finally lay my eyes upon what any photographer, famous or amateur, any artist, what anybody has yet to show the world about Detroit, something even I, its once-resident, admit I am unable to display: its truth.

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