Interview: Dave Jordano

© Dave Jordano, Swimmers, Belle Isle, Detroit, 2010

Dave Jordano received a BFA in photography from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit in 1974. In 1977 he established a highly successful commercial photography studio in Chicago, shooting major ad campaigns for clients like Crate & Barrel, Starbucks, Sears, Nestle, Kraft Foods, General Mills, Nintendo and Jenn-Air. As an emerging fine art photographer, he was awarded an honorable mention in the Houston Center for Photography's Long Term Fellowship Project in 2003, and received the Curator's Choice Award the following year. Jordano has been a Photolucida "Critical Mass" top twenty finalist three times in 2006, 2009 and 2013. He was also selected for inclusion in "One Hundred Portfolios", a compilation featuring the work of 100 leading photographers from around the world and sponsored by Wright State University, Dayton, OH. A major exhibition of his work titled "Articles of Faith" was held at the Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, IL in the spring of 2009 in conjunction with the publication of his first book, Articles of Faith by the Center for American Places, Columbia College Press.

Jordano has exhibited nationally and internationally and his work is held in several private, corporate and museum collections, most notably The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Federal Reserve Bank; The Harris Bank Collection,;and the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. His current ongoing project, "Detroit: Unbroken Down" documents the cultural and societal identity of Detroit. Dave is represented by the Clark Gallery in Lincoln, Massachusetts; Stieglitz19 Gallery, Anthwerp, Belgium; Photo Eye Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; and the Zeema Gallery, Moscow, Russia. A solo show of his Detroit work will open February 6, 2014 at the United Photo Industries Gallery, Brooklyn, NY.

© Dave Jordano, David & Juwan, Detroit 2011

fototazo: You have returned to photograph Detroit, your hometown, after photographing the city in the 1970s, in your current ongoing project "Detroit – Unbroken Down."

In your statement you talk about the body of images as documenting "the cultural and societal changes" that have happened there. How would you describe those changes specifically, and what have been your visual strategies for representing them?

Dave Jordano: The changes that have taken place are more closely tied to my memory of what I remember Detroit being like in the 70s. Commercial businesses were thriving, the downtown streets were bustling with pedestrians, office buildings were fully occupied, the population was still racially mixed and neighborhoods were stable. Fast forward 40 years and Detroit makes you feel that you're looking at a third world country. How could a city within my own lifetime change so dramatically for the worse? The answers are deeply complex and involve many factors. The race riots of 1967, which accelerated the white exodus to the suburbs; financial institutions red-lined neighborhoods based on color which plummeted real estate values and eroded the tax base; labor disputes and the right-to-work law which drove manufacturing and assembly jobs away by the tens of thousands; a lack of economic diversity; city mismanagement and rampant corruption; and blind corporate arrogance towards foreign auto competition all led up to Detroit's decline.

© Dave Jordano, Jay Thunderbolt, Northeast Side, Detroit 2011

All of this has had an enormous effect on the people who still live there, many who can't leave the city because they're too poor. With all of the chatter lately about Detroit's bankruptcy and the efforts to rebuild the city, which is certainly a positive thing, I'm more concerned with those who most likely will never feel the effects of any improvement because they live outside the limited areas of redevelopment. In many ways, people there have been living with so little for so long with their backs against the wall that it has actually crafted many self-sufficient communities. Bartering is a common practice, community gardens are an essential part of the food chain, neighborhood watches are in effect and many residents pitch in to clean up the abandoned lots on their street. This collective effort is something you don't see in more affluent neighborhoods but is born out of a necessity in poorer areas of Detroit. When city services become so lean, residents will often take it upon themselves to improve their surroundings. This to me is encouraging on a human, social, personal and photographic level.

© Dave Jordano, Daniel, Detroit 2010

f: Detroit has one of the most defined narratives of all American cities and has become synonymous in our visual culture with post-industrialism and decay. How have you worked to avoid the expected and perhaps tired story-lines conventionally applied to the city?

DJ: My first attempts to photograph Detroit were like everyone else's. I too was mesmerized by all of the empty, crumbling factories and the forty square miles of abandoned homes that littered the city, but it only took me a week of shooting this kind of subject matter to make me realize I was contributing nothing to a story that everyone already knew much about. I also didn't feel comfortable working this way either. It felt as if I had turned my back on the city and joined the ranks of all those who rallied to capitalize on its failure. I think that being from Detroit originally I felt a sense of obligation to create a visual representation of the city that didn't dwell on the usual visual tropes of what has been coined "ruin porn," or in other words the glorified documentation of abandoned factories and civic structures that proliferate the landscape there. Much of what has been overlooked in Detroit are the people who still live within one of the most ravaged post-industrial cities in America.

© Dave Jordano, Calvin with His Pit Bull, Detroit, 2011

My work is an attempt to open that narrative so that others can get a different sense of what the city is all about. By avoiding the obvious cliches, I hope to reveal a more human and empathetic story about Detroit that others can relate to. I make no excuses about searching out the poorest neighborhoods in the city to work in, but this is where I always find people who possess a high level of hope and a persevering spirit. What I find so satisfying about the people of Detroit is their attitude. I've made more than 23 trips there over the past three years and almost all of the people I've met display an uncanny ability to remain positive. There's no question that this is a reaction to all the bad press they've had to endure, but beyond that their resiliency and determination to survive is matched only by their sense of pride. The people of Detroit are proud of their history and where they're from and there is definitely something about living in Detroit that propels them to transcend all the hardship and negativity associated with it.

© Dave Jordano, Melanie, Detroit 2011

f: You currently live in Chicago. What is it about the specifics of your relationship to Detroit, or perhaps with the ideas and narratives there, that makes you travel from a city that has a lot of overlapping historical and social commonalities with Detroit to photograph?

DJ: I love Chicago and I love Detroit, but one is my hometown and the other I moved to for career reasons. They both may share a common geographic location, but the truth is the two cities couldn't be farther apart in terms of ideology. Detroit became this autocratic machine driven by the automotive industry and everything revolving around it. It worked pretty well for the first half of the 20th century and then it collapsed under the strain of its singular economy. Chicago on the other hand is a city of vast economic diversity, creating a business environment with far more economic opportunity, stabilit and growth. Many people use Detroit as an example of how other cities will follow, but in reality it is very unique city with its own specific set of problems. I could have done a similar project in Chicago but it wouldn't hold the same personal connection that Detroit has had over me. I felt strongly that this was something that I needed to do in part because I'm from there, but also because of the imbalance that the media was placing on it. It's been almost four years now since I started the project and I can't tell you how positive the response to the work has been. In this way alone it has made it worthwhile because I know that I have become a voice for a subject that has been sorely misrepresented and misunderstood.

© Dave Jordano, Algernon with Babe, Detroit 2010

© Dave Jordano, Clifford, Detroit 2012

f: Talk to us a little about the title of the project, both where it comes from and how it helps your vision for presenting the city.

DJ: The term "Unbroken Down" literally means not broken, but the grammatical incorrectness of the phrase makes you stop and think about what it means. It also, for me anyway, forges a link between acknowledging that something at one point was broken and now needs fixing, like, for example, the many times the image of Detroit has been so negatively portrayed by the media. All photographers have a point of view and mine embraced the idea of revealing a more human kind of connection to the city. It was important to me that this work be viewed as a testament to the perseverance of those who have continually struggled to get by and that there is still life in Detroit. It's not all just about emptiness and abandonment. I made the work on my own terms, expressing my own thoughts and feelings about a city that I felt connected with. If others feel the same way as I do then I guess I've succeeded in making some allies.

© Dave Jordano, Ejaz, Detroit 2010

f: You are returning to documentary practice after close to four decades in commercial photography. How have time and commercial experience come into play in your approach to photographing this project?

DJ: I spent thirty plus years shooting advertising assignments where my concentration was still life and food photography. Hardly a precursor for preparing myself to travel long distances, meet complete strangers and then ask them if I could take their portrait, but the impetus to all of what I've done in Detroit really relates back to my early days as a student there in the 70s. My first love was documentary photography and I built a foundation on that premise. I've always thought that one day I would return to pursuing personal work, so when I started again in 2001 at the age of 53 it really felt as if I had just stepped out the door and picked up from where I left off in 1974. I don't think that my approach or my interests photographically have changed all that much over the years, and I'm thankful for that, but the distance in time has made me realize that it can work both for you and against you, and time has not been kind to Detroit, but it's not dead either.

© Dave Jordano,  Interior, Ivanhoe Cafe, Polish Yacht Club, Detroit 2011