Franziska Klose, Detroit – Field Notes From a Wild City

JTF (just the facts): Published by Spector Books in 2021 (here). Softcover (30 x 23.5 cm), 176 pages, with numerous black and white and color illustrations. Includes texts by the artist (in English and German). Design by Ina Kwon. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Detroit, Michigan, was once the global center for the growing car industry. In 1896, Henry Ford test-drove his first automobile there, but after five decades of “motor city” prosperity, Detroit has since gone through a stubborn period of sweeping economic decline and population loss. In recent years, photographs of Detroit, often presented without much background or context, have become a recurring symbol of urban decay and ruin.

Perhaps this is why the new photobook by a German artist Franziska Klose feels so refreshing. Titled Detroit – Field Notes From a Wild City, it explores “the contemporary urban landscape of this de-industrialized metropolis as an overlay of social and natural history.” Detroit is part of Klose’s long-term research project investigating post-industrial landscapes titled “The New Wild”. Her first artist book Bitterfeld, was published in 2015 and focused on the post-industrial transformation of a small town in Germany.

Detroit is a medium sized softcover book. A photograph of a road and the carcass of a car drowning in green overgrowth appears on the cover in full bleed, while the artist’s name and the title are elegantly placed on the spine. Inside, full bleed color photographs alternate with black and white spreads that contain thumbnails, detailed captions, and quotes taken from books and conversations. Different types of paper are used for the various sections. The book has a swiss binding and easily lays flat, making the interaction even more pleasant. The information in the book is well structured and organized, and the presentation of details such as footnotes, chapter titles, references, and page numbers feels particularly thoughtful. The elegant design of the book, with its legible structure, meticulous attention to detail, and bold use of typography echoes a formal report. 

The book opens with an index of plants and corresponding pages in the publication: balsam poplar, butter-and-eggs, zucchini, Siberian dogwood, winter creeper, etc. The plants are symbolically taking over the book, just as they have retaken wide areas of Detroit. Klose’s photographs focus on former industrial infrastructure overrun by plants and trees, showing an original landscape completely dedicated to industry now almost unrecognizably untamed. She shows us a parade of fragments of a rusty fence, vacant grassy lots, and overgrown buildings, and these photographs make it evident that without proper attention and maintenance, the existing industrial structures have now collapsed into a jungle of decay. A small urban farm, a house behind fir trees, and a garden with tobacco plants offer the beginnings of re-establishing control. Klose is interested in what happens to industrial areas when the industry that produced them is dismantled.

Klose’s photographs, while unassuming and monotonous at first, are well crafted. They create a continuous and unified portrait of the city. The visual flow is paused with black and white pages printed on different paper; here detailed captions provide more social historical background. For instance, we learn that the photograph on the cover was taken at 2550 East Grand Boulevard, and “it was here that virtually all of the first automotive manufacturers started out.” Immediately, the image feels like a fitting opening for the book. As these stories unfold, we start to feel the now invisible rhythms of the city. A few spreads later there is a vertical photograph showing a billboard advertising Pepsi, reading “Made in Motor City” on an abandoned corner. This used to be Hastings Street, a vibrant center of Detroit’s African-American community.  The area was demolished for urban renewal and highway construction, along with entire neighborhoods known as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Through her research Klose discusses social injustice and racism, and how they relate to property ownership.

Large parts of the city are considered food deserts and local communities have worked to find ways to grow fresh vegetables. Through the shots of gardens and urban farms, Klose brings a number of promising initiatives started by residents and local communities into the conversation. She interviewed farmers to better understand what they do and how they work. Sacred Roots Garden is an educational garden that has a program to teach residents about traditional indigenous plants, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm was started by Bertha L. Carter to distribute food, educate, and provide jobs, and Ile Oko Farm considers farming a political act, and focuses on food security, land distribution, and social justice. One photograph shows a garden bed with “Swiss chard, peppers, American pokeweed, creeping charly, and small clove pinks,” locating native plants and natural history in the context of urban renewal.

The black and white pages contain key words at the bottom of the pages related to Detroit’s social and cultural history, and are addressed through captions on those pages: “Detroit summer”, “food desert”, “five dollar day”, “Albert Kahn”, “big three”, just to name a few. The last section at the end of the book titled “register” offers definitions. Under “Detroit”, Klose also finds it important to mention that “82.7 percent of the population of Detroit are African-Americans. This makes Detroit one of the largest Black communities in the United States.” All of these details and definitions offer another layer to the artist’s investigation, as Klose shows how the physical and natural structures in her pictures can underlay larger social inequalities.

Detroit is also an admirable example of how the clever intersection of images and text can lead to more robust storytelling. Klose creates a layered and in-depth investigation of the city – her book is definitely complex to read, yet it is well researched, and its engaging content immediately draws one in. Seen as a single integrated argument, Klose’s Detroit joins a growing genre of photobooks that merges the issue-driven determination of an investigative documentary practice with the instincts of an artist. Ultimately, her images offer a renewed sense of hope, and Detroit stands out as a thoughtful and intelligent photography project that translates well into photobook form. 

Collector’s POV: Franziska Klose does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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