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National Building Museum announces Detroit Photography exhibitions

The National Building Museum presents two photography exhibitions exploring the meaning of Detroit, Michigan. In Detroit Disassembled the artist Andrew Moore offers dramatic, classically-inspired images of the ruins found in the Motor City. Detroit Is No Dry Bones, by documentarian Camilo José Vergara, is a portrait of urban flux incorporating sequences of photos taken over two decades. In contrasting approaches to Detroit, Moore shows ruins returning to the earth and Vergara shows a transient city of reinvention. The exhibitions are on view in adjacent galleries from September 30, 2012 through February 18, 2013.

Andrew Moore Cooper Elementary School, East Side, 2008, digital chromogenic print scanned from film negative, 62 x 78 in., Collection of Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell

At its peak in 1955, Detroit—the silicon valley of its time—was a rich, technologically advanced metropolis of almost two million people. In 2012, it is among the poorest and most dangerous American cities, with a population of slightly more than seven hundred thousand. For decades, observers perceived Detroit’s decline as temporary, predicting its imminent return. After almost six decades of abandonment and struggle, the city is becoming better known for its landscape of ruins than for the automobiles that once made it world-famous.

The spectacle of Detroit’s decay has been widely circulated by the traditional press, online, and through social media, triggering debates over what can and should be done for the city. Its post-industrial ruins and abandoned landscapes are seen by many as eyesores in need repair or redevelopment, while outside artists and urban explorers make pilgrimages to the same locations. At the same time, both old and new residents are taking a DIY approach to redefining Motown, starting new businesses, farms, and organizing for positive change. Once the largest and most important manufacturing center of the 20th century, Detroit is a complex shrinking city that has become many cities in one, or in Vergara’s words “The Eternal City of the Industrial Age.”

Andrew Moore, Rolling hall, Ford Motor Company, River Rouge Complex, Dearborn, 2008, digital chromogenic print scanned from film negative, 62 x 78 in., Collection of Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell

Detroit Disassembled: Photographs by Andrew Moore
For decades Detroit was America’s icon of prosperity, but the Motor City has fallen into an incredible state of dilapidation since the decline of the American auto industry. Once the country’s fourth most populous city, Detroit proper is now one-third empty land dotted with thousands of abandoned structures. For generations Americans have gone to Europe to visit its castles and coliseums; now Europeans tour Detroit’s ruins. In Detroit Disassembled, Andrew Moore reveals the tragic beauty of this unsettled—and unsettling—territory. Thirty monumentally scaled photographs depict the windowless grand hotels, vast barren factories, collapsing churches, offices carpeted in velvety moss, and entire blocks reclaimed by prairie grass. These epic images disclose how the forward march of the assembly line has been thrown spectacularly into reverse in Detroit.

Andrew Moore is renowned internationally for large-format photography that captures the essence of place. His art, which has been exhibited widely, is in numerous museum collections including those of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the Israel Museum. Images from Detroit Disassembled have been acquired by museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Moore’s previous books include Inside Havana (2002), Governors Island (2005), and Russia: Beyond Utopia (2005).

Jose Vergara Willie’s Garage, 2520 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, 1991 Photo © Camilo José Vergara

Detroit Is No Dry Bones: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara
Sociologist and photographer Camilo José Vergara has traveled to Detroit for over twenty-five years to document not only the city’s precipitous decline but also how its residents have survived. In 1995, inspired by the number of abandoned early-era skyscrapers in downtown Detroit, he made the controversial proposal that several city blocks be “stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis.” Vergara’s photographs reveal the city of Detroit as a place in which enormous ruins, like those still standing in and near downtown, coexist with myriad restaurants, car-repair shops, churches, and gardens. Of his work in Detroit, Vergara hopes that his photographs will help people “come to appreciate how the city continues to survive and to give answers to those who come to observe it…The empty land, the art projects, the graffiti commentaries, and the ruins of the city’s industrial past make Motown an unforgettable city of the imagination and could provide the basis for a new Detroit.”

Camilo José Vergara is a photographer and author whose principal subject is America’s inner cities. Trained as a sociologist, Vergara has photographed some of America’s most impoverished neighborhoods since 1970. Named a MacArthur Fellow in 2002, he is one of the nation’s foremost urban documentarians. Vergara is the author of numerous books and his photographs have been acquired for the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Library of Congress, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, among other institutions. Detroit Is No Dry Bones marks the National Building Museum’s fifth collaboration with Vergara.

More information: 202.272.2448 or visit

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