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J. Gordon Rodwan has photographed Detroit for the last 25 years.

“Detroit never deserved to be so maligned, which is why I decided to look for ways to show more positive views of the city,” says Gordon, who started off in a photography club. “I got tired of looking at the same photos, and decided to expose people to aspects of the city that many people are probably unaware of. I didn’t always take photos of Detroit; my work has just evolved. I started photographing Detroit’s past—I would go to the train station, abandoned apartment buildings, and instead of focusing on the dilapidated aspects, I focused on the positive aspects, such as architectural details.”

With the release of Detroit Is: An Essay in Photographs, featuring his prize-winning photography, and his son, John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s, prose, Gordon will be sharing the multifaceted layers of the city he has observed from his home in Sherwood Forest, where he has lived with his family since 1970.

Gordon points out that although there are many photo books of Detroit, most of them are concentrated on fallen structures through the lens of decay. In Detroit Is, although these aspects of decay are acknowledged, the focus on the book is meant to be inspiring, without either glorifying or ignoring the relics.

“Even the cover of the book,” Gordon states, “is symbolic—taken through a broken window of an automobile plant, but is focused on the beautiful skyline and athletic field below.” Gordon emphasizes that his photos are different from what most people are exposed to when they look at images of Detroit, deliberately focusing on the city’s efforts to find a vibrancy through creative rebirth. 

Gordon’s son, John, makes for the perfect collaborator for telling such a story. His poems and nonfiction have appeared in journals and magazines such as Midwestern Gothic, Jazz Research JournalPacific ReviewCritical Moment and the New York Review of Books blog. John and his father started talking about this collaboration while John was living in Portland, OR, but it wasn’t until the last four and a half years, when John moved back to Detroit after a 15-year hiatus, that the book really started coming together.

“Sometimes, I would write the prose, and my father would take a photograph to correspond, and sometimes he would take a photograph, and then I would write the prose. It just became our way of responding to each other. From this, we were inspired to make a Detroit-focused photography book that presented the readers with a different perspective. We did not want to focus on the city’s fantastic ruins, but more so the multiple sides of Detroit.”

Inspired by the beauty of Detroit, John and his father both agree that the takeaway message intended for Detroit Is is “to make the effort to take something worn down, and make something of it.” 

“I have seen a phenomenal change in Detroit over the past few years,” says John, “and our book is meant to have the audience questioning the meaning of these changes and to really think about earlier Detroit as it compares to the future of our city. This is a very transformative project and a very personal project,” adds John.

Although Gordon anticipates that his photography projects will see a shift in locations, due to heighten security and the revitalization of once desolate areas, he and John both agree that they would like to continue their collaborative efforts. “My work has recently changed,” says Gordon, whose recent photographs are centered around Detroiters enjoying their community, including images of people playing chess on the sidewalk or families enjoying the revamped RiverWalk. “Now I get to capture the comeback of Detroit, and focus on the future,” states Gordon, who remains astounded by the vast change he has documented over his career.

The book launch for Detroit Is: An Essay in Photographs will be held at The Scarab Club on Thursday, January 14, from 6 to 9pm. The event includes a reception, multimedia presentation and book signing. Books and photographs will be available for purchase at the book launch. 

By Elizabeth Furest