Detroit’s urban decay becomes a signifier of beauty in Philip Jarmain’s American Beauty

By Yasmine Shemesh

Beneath the tattered, peeling drywall and behind the boarded-up windows stands something beautiful. It may not be obvious, at first, but look harder. Look at the archways, its detailing clinging to its former grandeur through the dust; walls of marble and vaulted ceilings; tracery windows framing stained glass, though now shattered, once rays of coloured light. Vancouver-based photographer Philip Jarmain has looked, deeply. Over a period of five years, he journeyed into the struggling city of Detroit with a mission to document the increasingly hurried destruction of its early 20th-century buildings. Jarmain’s debut art photography exhibition, American Beauty: The Opulent Pre-Depression Architecture Of Detroit, is an observance of the tragic magnificence that lies within some of Detroit’s most disgraced physical ruins.

Jarmain has always maintained an interest in dark, complex narratives. A well-travelled childhood and a love of storytelling led to his fascination with taking pictures and eventually having an award-winning career in commercial photography. His focus on Detroit would offer a layered tale of ambition tinged rotten with bitterness.

At one time called “Paris of the Midwest,” Detroit was steered by innovation and artistry. Its rich architecture in the early 1900s rivaled that of New York or Chicago. After the Great Depression, the architectural renaissance came to a halt. The Motor City boomed again in the 1950s with automotive manufacturing opportunities but began to fall into decline due to de-industrialization and lack of diverse employment. The U.S. recession of 2009 sent Detroit on a spiral to ruin, hurtling toward the bankruptcy of industrialism and leaving most of these opulent, pre-Depression buildings to a fate of demolition.

By shooting elevations and avoiding complex camera angles, Jarmain attempts to create a perspective of being within the spaces as he saw them. The 19 images of buildings such as the Lee Plaza Hotel, Michigan Central Station and the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church depict the ghosts of these palatial structures whose exquisite form and detail, despite its current state of shambles, amount to architectural masterpieces and irreplaceable symbols of Detroit’s heritage. The effect is both moving and harrowing.

Jarmain’s photographs recite a tragic narrative, capturing the hope of what once was and the nightmare of what came to be. Though the fractured dreams of art and entrepreneurialism now lie in a landscape of tattered, peeling drywall and shattered windows, their optimism will forever be immortalized through Jarmain’s work. Look harder— for even through the rubble lies an unwavering beauty.

American Beauty: The Opulent Pre-Depression Architecture of Detroit runs at the Jennifer Kostuik Gallery from September 25-October 19.

Published in print and online at www.beatroute.ca, October 2014

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