Representing Detroit

Media Literacy Tools for Understanding Representations of Detroit

4. Time Magazine’s “Beautiful Ruins” and the “Remains of Detroit”

If you haven’t already read the introduction page to the “Dominant Representations” section of the blog, please go here.

This section presents two Time magazine online photo essays that focus on the ruins and decay of Detroit as well as the aftermath of Detroit’s fall from great heights.

Time Magazine’s “Remains of Detroit” Photo Essay (n.d.)

Sean Hemmerle, a freelance photographer based in New York City, photographed images of Detroit in a photo-essay entitled “The Remains of Detroit.”  In this 12-image essay, Hemmerle presents what he calls an “elegiac [mournful, sad] sign of America’s falling industrial might in the crumbling urban ruins of the Motor City.”  In photographing the Central Train station, Hemmerle asserts that his essay attempts to show “Detroit’s derelict buildings as part of a project exploring how far America has fallen.”  Again, Detroit is seen has having fallen from great heights, which symbolizes all that has gone wrong in America.  As you go through each of the images, pay close attention to each caption, which reveals how great Detroit used to be and how sad and “staggering” it is that it has fallen into disrepair and neglect.  Again, it may be true that much of Detroit has been abandoned, but is this all that there is to say about Detroit?  Why focus on Detroit’s remains?  What about the living, breathing culture, economy, and political institutions that still make up Detroit today?


Time Magazine’s “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline” Photo Essay (n.d.)

Similar to Sean Hemmerle’s “The Remains of Detroit,” Time‘s presentation of the “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Declaine” photo-essay by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre focuses on the “beauty” that might be found among the ruins of Detroit’s “horrible decline.”  As you read the captions associated with silencing images of crumbling buildings or empty, run-down interiors, notice how the focus is made to when different sites around the city closed down or were abandoned.  Also, it is important to note the caption to the last photo of the collection, which presents a quote from Marchand and Romain’s website: “Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes … the volatile result of the change of eras and the fall of empires. This fragility leads us to watch them one very last time: to be dismayed, or to admire, it makes us wonder about the permanence of things.” Therefore, according to the photographers, Detroit might be seen as a symbol or landmark for the fall of the American empire.  They also imply that Detroit provides a warning for us about the fragility of our American way of life.  Why is Detroit such a spectacle for photojournalists like Marchand and Meffre?  Is it fair that they claim that Detroit is a symbol for the fall of the American empire?  How would a Detroiter respond to this treatment of Detroit?


Now that you have looked at how Time magazine has focused on the “tragedy of Detroit” that has resulted in its “beautiful ruins,” let’s take a look at how televised news relies on the “rise and fall” story and obsessions with ruins, too.  Go to The “Rise and Fall” of Detroit in the News.