Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much Ruin Porn Can We Take?

A particularly thrilling image comes early on, of the abandoned Detroit Boat Club, founded in 1839, on Belle Isle. It is a gray and foggy day; the building has not fallen into complete disrepair. It looks like the inhabitants decided that morning, after a couple of hard years, to simply pick up and leave. Ms. Taubman, who moved to Detroit in 1999 and helped found the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, works her camera like a skilled postmodernist works a pen: she is good at casting as familiar the foreign sight of a large, expansive building with a 150-year history that has lost its use value only to become a mere pile of wood and bricks.

It is refreshing to view an image of abandonment that feels more documentary than sensational, but it is Ms. Taubman’s photographs of people (so absent from too many chronicles of Detroit) that are the most interesting. Still, even if the presentation of it is, for the most part, tasteful, the book is weighted heavily toward rubble and decay. Interspersed among that, however, are casual observers who seem to have been picked up by the camera accidentally. There is one picture of three black men at a bar, running an entire spectrum of possible responses to a wealthy white woman aiming her lens at them. One has his back turned, the other is staring with an unimpressed scowl and the third is playing for attention, flashing a wad of cash in each hand and wrinkling his mouth over a cigarette. It is worth noting that most of the book’s images of people are shot in bars.

There are exceptions. One is of three people, their backs facing the camera, watching a neighbor’s house burn from their front lawn. When people see Detroit for the first time, they are often amazed that entire blocks seem to have gone missing from the landscape. The couple of days leading up to Halloween—a white knuckle time for the city, the fire department in particular, called Devil’s Night—were renamed Angel’s Night in 1994 in an attempt to get citizens out into the streets to help quell some of the flames. There were 169 fires over a three-day period surrounding Halloween in 2010, up from 119 in 2009. (Thankfully, this number reportedly went down in 2011.)

One can feel the weight of history in Ms. Taubman’s photograph, as well as the suggestion of bad things to come. Still, it is the people watching nervously that give the burning house its meaning. If anything, the book needs more images like this.

But, in all fairness, how could it? This modern city gained and lost two million people in less than 100 years, and that story is told better—or easier, anyway—by the abandoned buildings than it is by the people who stayed. Because, you see, Detroit defies the idea of a modern city. Cities are not meant to shrink, they are not meant to burn extensively.

Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much Ruin Porn Can We Take?