I’ve noted on more than one occasion that I love Michigan. It’s not just Michigan, the state I grew up in, but coming from a region of stories, of pathos, of potential, of wasted opportunities and second chances. My family history is bound up with the state in one of those typically interesting ways: on my mother’s side was a Polish agricultural family who emigrated to the Bay City area to grow potatoes. My grandfather was a medic in World War I; at 47 he married my grandmother and they had 9 children, the penultimate being my mother. On my father’s side is one of those crazy quilts of English-French-Canadian-American ancestry, featuring farming on the Old Mission Peninsula over a hundred years ago. My grandfather was born in Detroit then was adopted by his aunt and grew up in the UP. He worked in the tannery, then enlisted in the Navy in WWII, married my grandmother who had grown up across the street from his family, painted houses for a living, and has hunted and fished his way through his adult life.
Almost everybody I know who grew up in Michigan has a similar set of stories in a way that my acquaintances in growth states like Arizona, Florida, and California don’t. Their stories usually start with a sigh in about 1970 when somebody moved for better weather or a different job or the promise of suburban life. The landscapes of these places reflect this same disaffection — Arizona is nothing so much as a tired newness, a cheerless effort to convince you that THIS is gonna be THE PLACE.
It’s difficult to describe what these braided lives of Michigan history mean. Driving through the strip malls and expressways of Southeast Michigan, for example, makes me question if anybody really cares anymore — who decided to make the suburbs of Detroit a placeless mass of concrete and neon and asphalt and wood and plastic and glass? Did this ever appeal to the senses or inflame the spirit? But I feel it when I detour through Saginaw on my way up north. When I walk down Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti. When I see struggling wig stores and faded factory buildings and bricked-up windows on darkened taverns, and when I pass by the river in Kalamazoo or the locks in Sault Sainte Marie. These places have texture. More than patina — bourgeois dirt arranged just so on the facade or in the grooves of trim — these are wounds, scabs, sunburns, scars and liver spots making a place recognizable as being unlike any other.
I know that other people feel this, but I’m not sure how many. I suspect a lot of people have a sense of it but aren’t sure how to channel this energy and end up reading stories by Larry Massie. I know a few of my friends get it, but quite a few more don’t — they’re as happy in Charlotte as Los Angeles as Houston as anyplace they grew up. There are, however, a few people who not only get this, that the old cities and towns of the Great Lakes have something no other place in the country has, but have ways of expressing it. This is why I love the Great Lakes Myth Society, as I’ve detailed before — it’s like they’ve explored the whole Michigan musical and physical landscape, taking stories from their memories and from their folklore and from their grandparents’ old photos and their imaginations and braided these threads into songs that tie people together.
Somebody else who gets it is Matt Callow. He’s not even from the States, but some of his photographs give me the same feeling as “Isabella County, 1992,” which is saying a lot. Callow is a Brit who moved to Southeast Michigan for a woman a couple years ago and has spent the time since then working with alternate and antiquated film processes to document the landscape of our lives. He’s probably most renowned as a pinhole guy and has led several workshops on pinhole photography in Ann Arbor. If it’s not pinholes he’s best known for, it’s his landscape photography (pinhole or otherwise) taking in country roads, rivers, the lakeshore, and geological features. But that’s not what this is about.
Matt Callow reveals his true genius in a handful of photographs from his “Toy Camera” series. Numerous toy cameras like the Holga and Diana have found a new following among retro-film fans, as well as the Soviet Lomo for their not-quite-right aesthetics including vignetting, blur, and interior light bounce. Mass produced for cheap and easy consumption, they offer the very basic in picture-taking. No shutter variation, limited aperture control, a flash shoe, a plain plastic lens and a viewfinder is what you got with Holgas, but you got it cheap.
In retrospect, a cheap, mass-produced job is the perfect camera to photograph de-industrializing Michigan. The state bet the farm on manufacturing and lost the wager, getting miles of interstate, suburban sprawl, and emptying cities in return. How appropriate, then, to turn this cheaply-made, half-effective product, like so much of the disposable products Michigan made over the last hundred years, on the landscape to show what the best and brightest of industry have wrought. Decommissioned rails, overlogged timber, overgrown industrial sites, deserted lakeshores, dilapidated houses — you might expect to see any and all of these recorded by one of Callow’s toy cameras.
The pictured “Grain Silos” is one of his most interesting toy camera shots. Looming over the photographer, these artifacts of agriculture almost taunt the viewer with the thought of what factory farming is doing to the last of Michigan’s productive landscape, while reminding us what we gave up to the promise of the automobile and real estate development. The clouds stream smokily overhead as if the very buildings were burning to the ground.
Another hit is “Ypsilanti Depot,” comprising three exposures of the abandoned railroad station in another industrial city still facing the crisis of the twentieth century. The effect is like that of stereoptical photography, a 19th-century fad intended to make you feel like you were right there looking at it (in black and white). The camera looks longingly down the tracks towards Ann Arbor and towards Chicago, towards better times somewhere else, but the blur and the warm tones imply that it’s not so urgent to rush off to the big city yet.
What may be his best photo ever is the Diana shot “Foggy Detroit.” Like a long-ago picture of the future, the image captures at once the fading promise of the postwar city and the pessimism of concrete architecture in a tubular walkway with inky porthole windows stretching deep into the image, reaching over multiple highways nearly devoid of cars. Was Detroit ever so depressing as in its late twentieth century architecture? Is that the Penobscot building standing quiet behind the concrete atrocity, reminding us that there were better times years ago when men like Burnham and Kahn and Gilbert worked their magic on the cityscape with an architecture of hope and celebration? A few years ago, a SE Michigan filmmaker made a feature called “Detroit: Ruins of a City” that marveled at the abandonment of magnificent structures in Detroit. No great achievement, in my book, as the fact is plain to see for anyone who visits. More impressive and compelling is Callow’s work here, which turns our perceptions of even recent development on their head.
Like many of the most meaningful meditations on Michigan, these do not linger on the subjects at hand and Callow does not wax on and on about the significance of his shots, even when interviewed on the topic. But someone has to — his work and the de-industrial landscape of the state are too important not to.