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Photography

Considering the upside

A Swiss photographer looks skyward in Detroit

Christine Hunold creates landscapes by photographing vertical horizons: Michigan Central Station.
A building on Woodward Avenue.
The Wurlitzer Building.
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Published 6/27/2007

Ansel Adams once said, "A good photograph is knowing where to stand." Looking at Christine Hunold's photographs, it's often difficult to determine where, exactly, she has chosen to stand, especially when you are told her pictures have not been altered in any way. You know you are looking at something that exists in our world, which, if you were so inclined, you could go and photograph yourself, provided you knew where to stand.

In early 2004, Hunold, 48, who is from Zurich, Switzerland, began shooting what would become her trademark "horizons." She placed her camera against a building in Berlin, aimed it at the sky and pressed the button. Later that year, also in Berlin, she saw the Shrinking Cities exhibit, about depopulation in post-industrial cities across the globe. With its prominent depiction of Detroit as one of the world's deteriorating centers, the Shrinking Cities exhibit struck a chord with her.

She had witnessed the gradual decline of Berlin, having visited there numerous times since 1980. To get a feel for the city, she would take the subway to the outskirts of town and walk back to the city center. With each successive visit, more of the city was empty. After photographing horizons in some smaller towns in eastern Germany and one in Switzerland, she set her sights on Detroit. She arrived here in May with her partner Marcel Meier and stayed for two weeks.

Unlike many photographers, both amateur and professional, who come here to photograph our already overpublicized decay, Hunold is very conscientious of the plight of the city and its residents. She didn't want to be a "tourist of sadness," as she put it in a recent e-mail.

"The struggle of many people around the world, their struggle to survive is serious to me," Hunold says. "In Detroit, that struggle very much includes projects of self-help." She cites the nonprofit group Motor City Blight Busters as an inspiration. Anyone can come here and photograph a burned-out, half-standing building; they aren't hard to find. But this shows us — and, for that matter, the world — nothing we haven't already seen. Hunold's Detroit horizons, on the other hand, render the city unrecognizable. Her photos leave you with the sublime feeling that there's terrain yet to be discovered in your own backyard, if you shift your perspective.

Hunold likens her work to the way nature takes over a place that people have chosen to abandon. "As an artist, I have only the tool of making pictures to react to the economic reality, the misfortune of people and the injustice of capitalism. Like plants growing in contaminated soil, I try to make beautiful pictures out of shrinking cities." The artist shot about 3,000 documentary photos of the city. Six hundred were intended to be part of her "Horizons" series, but only one hundred of those, she says, "are good enough for my eye."

In visiting Detroit for the first time, Hunold says the friendliness surprised her — not because she expected otherwise, but because she's used to encountering people who take offense to her process. After all, she does have to physically touch the building she's shooting, which can pose a problem in a society suspicious of everyone from graffiti artists to terrorists. In Europe, Hunold has been met on several occasions with verbal and physical abuse. But Detroiters, she notes, were warmly receptive. "It was very pleasant to be able to work without fighting resentment," she says.

Hunold and her partner spent six to 10 hours each day, visiting such neighborhoods as Cass Corrdior, Eastern Market, Brush Park, Midtown and Mexicantown. Indeed, walking and taking public transportation the entire time they were here, the couple encountered many curious onlookers. Once, while he was waiting for a bus on Michigan Avenue, a stranger engaged them in conversation. "Switzerland!?" the man shouted, upon hearing where they were from. "And you came to Detroit?" He was still in disbelief upon the arrival of the bus. Boarding, he brought another guy into the conversation. "Do you believe it, they're world travelers! And they came to Detroit! Why? Why?" To which the other man, staring blankly ahead, solemnly intoned, "Detroit's part of the world too."

For more information, visit Christine Hunold's Web site at christinehunold.ch.

Matt Casadonte is a freelancer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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