link - issue 13: January 2015
fence transparency

This text is by stephen garrett dewyer in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

an art about place1

global capital’s humanitarian regime in Corine Vermeulen’s Photographs from the Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio (2009-2014)

stephen garrett dewyer

Photographs from the Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio (2009-2014) by Corine Vermeulen
14 November 2014 – 17 May 2015
Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward Avenue
Detroit, MI 48202


The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has a predilection for documentary photography, but also does a number of institutions trying to incorporate realism with a public face2.  The reason comes as no surprise.  Documentary photography gives institutions the ability to say they are representing the plight of the poor or working class without a self-critical lens.  Corine Vermeulen’s solo exhibition Photographs from the Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio by Corine Vermeulendespite its panel discussion featuring local activists, writers, organizers and an historian in addition to interviews with her photography subjects—comes as no exception.

In Walk-In Portrait Studio, Vermeulen travels around Detroit taking photographs of the city’s inhabitants (fig. 1).  Some of the places she visits are the East Side Riders, The James and Grace Lee Boggs School, Fortress Studios, Jit Happens, Defend the DIA!, D-Town Farm, Recycle Here, Detroit Focus Hope and independent neighborhoods.  The angle of the lens is almost identical in all of the portraits: wide-angle at waist-level.  The camera centers the subject.  Occasionally, a landscape or close-up changes the camera angle.  Her subjects almost always look into the camera seeming aware but unimpressed.

figure 1

Catherine Ferguson Academy, Now Closed, 2011 (printed 2014)

Corine Vermeulen
Catherine Ferguson Academy, Now Closed, 2011 (printed 2014)
photo courtesy stephen garrett dewyer

The subjects Vermeulen photographs appear poor or working class and either in a studio or amidst Detroit’s streets and fields.  Particularly, the series Your Town Tomorrow, Detroit 2007 - 2012, (fig. 2) photographs Detroiters in everyday clothes amidst lots of uncut grass, weeds, broken pavement and abandoned or neglected buildings3.  The title of the series, although humorous within the context of Olafur Eliasson’s pristine sculptures with titles such as Your ocular pawnshop, 2011, and Your rainbow panorama, 2006 - 2011, reflects the realism running throughout the show.  The message is clear: there is no other way than the necessity of life lived from day to day.  Vermeulen writes on her website “[a]lthough documentary in nature, these images are not meant to survey a Detroit ‘as is’”4, which seems an after-thought and at odds with the methods Vermeulen uses to photograph her subjects5.

figure 2

Your Town Tomorrow, Detroit, 2007 - 2012

Corine Vermeulen
Your Town Tomorrow, Detroit, 2007 - 2012
photo courtesy stephen garrett dewyer

heading_01

Vermeulen’s photographs reflect a genre of photography known as documentary6, a genre that, because of its nature in giving the “truth” of experience, represents a logocentrism7 familiar to colonialism in the West and the neo-colonial expansion of economic inequality within global capital.  As documentary, Vermeulen’s Walk-In Portrait Studio reflects a neo-colonial expansion of economic inequality within global capital as part of a project of realism that, simultaneously, gives the institutions showing the subject of documentary the air of representing the public (largely absent from the running of such institutions).  By conflating the public (Detroit) with the becoming-(in)human, Vermeulen’s photographs represent a politics of humanitarianism that serve to obfuscate the reality of the institutions they represent: that of dwindling public accountability while neoliberalism works its wonders on the recently bankrupt city8.

As they are based in providing the “truth” of experience, documentary becomes complicit in humanitarian regimes and how such regimes perpetuate stereotypes of the Other within global capital.  The subject of humanitarianism within the context of Detroit raises some issues.  Humanitarianism sublimates cultural difference for the sake of identifying a common humanity while presupposing such humanity appears without a culture.  Jacques Rancière, a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris (St. Denis), writes of humanitarian regimes:

The experience of a programmed de-humanization quite naturally finds itself expressed in the same way as the Flaubertian identity between the human and the inhuman, between the emergence of an emotion uniting two beings and a little dust stirred up by a draught in a farm kitchen… This extreme experience of the inhuman confronts no impossibility of representation; nor is there a language peculiar to it.  There is no appropriate language for witnessing.  Where testimony has to express the experience of the inhuman, it naturally finds an already constituted language of becoming-inhuman, of an identity between human sentiments and non-human movements.  It is the very language whereby aesthetic fiction is opposed to representative fiction.  And one might at a pinch say that the unrepresentable is lodged precisely here, in the impossibility of an experience being told in its own appropriate language.  But this principled identity of the appropriate and the inappropriate is the very stamp of the aesthetic regime in art” (Rancière. The Future of the Image: p. 126).

Vermeulen’s photographs must give evidence to her having been to the most extreme forms of humanity for the image of humanity to sublimate the differences between center and periphery, between capital and its other.  At the same time, such evidence must show such extremes constitute certain types of degeneracy in order to preserve the “human” for an anthropocentric sublime.

Vermeulen’s Walk-In Portrait Studio reflects the stereotypes9 around Detroit and its deployment of realism is part and parcel the causality behind stereotyping (fig. 3).  A stereotype is the colonial discourse by which an object blends with a subject to create a subject-object.  Regardless of whether the stereotype becomes judged as positive or negative, it represents a system of domination over the Other.  Homi K. Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language, and the Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, writes of stereotypes that:

despite the ‘play’ in the colonial system which is crucial to its exercise of power, colonial discourse produces the colonized as a social reality which is at once an ‘other’ and yet entirely knowable and visible.  It resembles a form of narrative whereby the productivity and circulation of subjects and signs are bound in a reformed and recognizable totality.  It employs a system of representation, a regime of truth, that is structurally similar to realism” (Bhabha.  The Location of Culture:  p. 71).

Such a desire to find a social reality that is “other”10 that is also, supposedly, entirely knowable and visible in their humanity suggests a colonial project to typecast the least fortunate in global capital in order to also show such types as degenerative.  Truth11, through its metaphysical closure of the text at its origin, becomes the supposed bond between the photographer (Vermeulen) and her subjects (Detroiters).  In such a way, the camera becomes a supposedly objective instrument in Walk-In Portrait Studio that gives Vermeulen the authority of surveillance12.

figure 3

Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio (2009 - 2014), (Will, Klinger Street, 2009)

Corine Vermeulen
Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio (2009 - 2014), (Will, Klinger Street, 2009)
photo courtesy stephen garrett dewyer

Objectivist photography can be seen in the typologies developed by Bernd and Hilla Becher (figs. 4 and 5), whose use of the grid in arranging photographs of certain types reflects in Vermeulen’s installation (fig. 6) and website (fig. 7).  The documentary genre can be seen as somewhat different than objectivist photography in that the former attempts to represent the singularity and uniqueness of the event of its production while the latter appears more concerned with a serial image represented by multiple images that is, supposedly, unique and singular but reproducible at different locations.  Nevertheless, both objectivist photography and documentary photography come from realism, which, for the purposes of this text, is defined as a belief in the supremacy of place in determining events over the romantic notion that places might also change according to events, both imagined and real.

figure 4

Framework Houses Slate, 2011

Bernd and Hilla Becher
Framework Houses Slate, 2011
black and white photographs, gelatin silver prints in grid format
68 1/8 X 55 1/8 inches
173.04 X 140.02 cm

 

figure 5

Gas Tanks, 1983 - 1992

Bernd and Hilla Becher
Gas Tanks, 1983 - 1992
black and white photographs, gelatin silver prints in grid format

figure 6

Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio (2009 - 2014) (The James and Grace Lee Boggs School, 2014)

Corine Vermeulen
Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio (2009 - 2014) (The James and Grace Lee Boggs School, 2014)
photograph courtesy stephen garrett dewyer

figure 7

screenshot of http://www.corinevermeulen.com/project/the-walk-in-portrait-studio on 14 December 2014

screenshot of http://www.corinevermeulen.com/project/the-walk-in-portrait-studio on 14 December 2014

heading_02

According to the realism in Vermeulen’s Walk-In Portrait Studio, her subjects would appear as they live their entire lives.  A documentary style would presume the subject would not opt-in or refuse to become the subject of a photograph and would not display pleasure at being photographed.  Yet, on the contrary, some Detroiters appear pleased (fig. 8).  While the collaborative space between Vermeulen and the subjects of her photography complicates the objective strategies employed by the genre, that consent had to be given for the photographs to occur does not belie the coercive relationship of surveillance implicit in the photographs.


figure 8

Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio (2009 - 2014) (Jit Happens at the DIA, 2014)

Corine Vermeulen
Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio (2009 - 2014) (Jit Happens at the DIA, 2014)
photograph courtesy stephen garrett dewyer

The realism in Walk-In Portrait Studio is the same realism that says everyone must know their place; that the poor cannot be happy because they are poor; that we cannot change; that things are only subject for the viewing of others and that we cannot decide our appearances.  The realism in Walk-In Portrait Studio is the same realism that James Agee displays in his 1936 series for Fortune Magazine of poor sharecroppers in Alabama that later appeared in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), co-authored with Walker Evans (fig. 9).

figure 9

Tenant Farmer Wife (Allie Mae Burroughs), 1936

Walker Evans
Tenant Farmer Wife (Allie Mae Burroughs), 1936
Gelatin silver print

To what do we owe the Detroit Institute of Arts (fig. 10) (among many other institutions) display of documentary photography?  Unlike many of the museums in the United States under private ownership, the DIA’s board of directors is appointed by the City of Detroit.  The museum receives most of its funds through private donors after Detroit withdrew financial support.  In 2012, Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties agreed to a ten year millage to fund the DIA.  The millage is expected to raise $23 million per year.  As one of the largest municipally-owned collections (albeit via a non-profit entity), the DIA counters the assumption that art is only for the wealthy.

That the DIA continues to operate as a semi-public institution despite the austerity facing Detroit suggests necessity need not come at the expense of art and the opposition between art and necessity is a dichotomy invented to preserve a supposedly dominant culture13 that is founded upon economic inequality.  Ironically, the show Walk-In Portrait Studio puts art and necessity in opposition, with the subjects of Vermeulen’s photography relegated to lives of necessity as the photographer takes the life of the traveler.

figure 10

Detroit Institute of Arts, 2 November 2014

Detroit Institute of Arts, 2 November 2014
photograph courtesy stephen garrett dewyer

Vermeulen traveled to a couple of the poorest and most violent cities in the United States and the world in search of humanity, including Medellin, Colombia14.  She may have found humanity, but she fails to question the system that denies the humanity she seeks.   Left intact in Walk-In Portrait Studio is the need to imagine the Other within an identifiable format as the Other in order to perceive a shared humanity.  No mention of how the subjects came or what is to come of them.  For such a reason, the selection of subjects in Walk-In Portrait Studio have the appearance of happening at random despite the very deliberate locations Vermeulen travels.


footnotes

1 This review is, in part, a response to the placemaking happening in much of the private and public grant giving in Detroit.  It is also a response to the claims to “authenticity” that ignore the performative aspects of identity.

2 Since the start of the 21st century, the DIA exhibited solo shows of artists using documentary photography in Detroit - Bruce Weber (2014), Patti Smith: Camera Solo (2012), Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs, 1955 (2010), Ansel Adams (2007), Dawoud Bey: Detroit Portraits (2004) and group shows of documentary photography in Motor City Muse: Detroit Photographs, Then and Now (2012 - 2013), Detroit Revealed: Photographs 2000-2010 (2011 - 2012), Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky (2009).

3 An audience member at the panel discussion mentioned the photographs in Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio appear “raggedy” and asked Vermeulen to respond to continued stereotyping.  A panelist insisted the photographs were more about common humanity than stereotypes, neglecting to see how humanitarian regimes and stereotypes are not mutually exclusive and act often in concert within neocolonialism.

4 http://www.corinevermeulen.com/project/your-town-tomorrow-detroit-2007-2012

5 Posters and flyers were distributed soliciting photographs over a five day period in Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio.  In exchange for the photograph, subjects could receive a copy free of charge within a week.

6 “Your Town Tomorrow (2007-2012) which documents Detroit’s shifting social and geographic ecologies, and Obscura Primavera (2009-2014) which explores present-day conditions in the city of Medellin, Colombia [italics mine]” (http://www.corinevermeulen.com/about)

7 Jacques Derrida defines logocentrism as “the metaphysics of phonetic writing (for example, of the alphabet) which was fundamentally--for enigmatic yet essential reasons that are inaccessible to a simple historical relativism--nothing but the most original and powerful ethnocentrism, in the process of imposing itself upon the world, controlling in one and the same order… the concept of writing… [and] the concept of science or the scientificity of science” (Derrida.  Of Grammatology: p. 3).

8 E.g. the diversion of funds from Detroit Public Schools to the Olympia Entertainment District.

9 E.g. that Detroit is a wild place on the fringes of civil society.

10 Funding for the show Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio came, in part, from the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York.

11the history of (the only) metaphysics, which has, in spite of all differences, not only from Plato to Hegel (even including Leibniz) but also, beyond these apparent limits, from the pre-Socratics to Heidegger, always assigned the origin of truth in general to the logos: the history of truth, of the truth of truth, has always been--except for a metaphysical diversion that we shall have to explain--the debasement of writing, and its repression outside “full” speech” (Derrida. Of Grammatology: p. 3).

12 Dawoud Bey appears as one of the few (if only) photographers who is African-American to exhibit documentary photography at the DIA since his solo-show Dawoud Bey: Detroit Portraits in 2004.

13 Elaborating on the opposition between art and necessity and its foundations in economic inequality will have to wait for a later publication.  However, the Frankfurt School and the modernist notion of the Avant Garde poses such a dichotomy.

14 Vermeulen travelled to Medellin, Colombia for a series called Obscura Primavera, 2009-2014. In the late 1980s, Medellin was listed as the most violent city in the world. Since the 1990s, Medellin's violence has reduced, but the War on Drugs continues and violent crime remains relatively high (Borrell. “Colombia the most Dangerous City: Welcome to Medellin, coke capital of the world”. TIME. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,967029-1,00.html)


works_cited

Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).  First Mariner Books edition: Boston, MA.  2001.

Bhabha, Homi K.  The Location of Culture. Routledge Classics: New York and London. 2004

Borrell, John. “Colombia the most Dangerous City: Welcome to Medellin, coke capital of the world”. TIME. 21 March 1988. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,967029-1,00.html

www.corinevermeulen.com/

Derrida, Jacques.  Of Grammatology.  Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London. 1997

Rancière, Jacques. The Future of the Image. Translated by Gregory Elliott.  Verso: London, U.K. and New York, NY.  2007

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