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Philip Jarmain captures Detroit's decay in new show

09/26/2014 10:08 EDT | Updated 11/26/2014 05:59 EST
Vancouver photographer Philip Jarmain's latest exhibition documents the decay of Detroit's architectural gems over the past five years.

His show, American Beauty: The Opulent Pre-Depression Architecture of Detroit, is a collection of Jarmain's images from Detroit, Michigan,

“As a photographer, I’m always looking for a great story," he says, explaining his inspiration for the project. 

The Vancouver-based photographer took over a dozen trips to Detroit. His large-scale works are currently on display at the Jennifer Kostiuk Gallery in downtown Vancouver.

On The Coast’s Stephen Quinn spoke with the artist about his latest show.

What is the story you wanted to tell?

When I went to Detroit in 2010, I’d heard about the decline but wanted to see it for myself. It was astounding; absolutely incredible.

This is a city that was on par with Paris and New York, and to see these buildings vacant was something else.

Why focus on pre-Depression era architecture?

I met up with a journalist in Detroit for a scouting mission. And the one thing that really stuck with me that first trip was that the city never really recovered from that original Great Depression.

To see the history of Detroit as a centre of innovation and the powerhouse of industry that really shaped the world as we know it now, you have to look back to the early 1900s.

What architectural styles do you see in these buildings?

In the early 1900s it started with a very European influence.

It was incredibly opulent with a mishmash of styles—baroque, Gothic and Mediterranean revival. But toward the 1920s, Art deco started to really dominate and what was great was you saw Detroit really come into its own as a very proud American city.

So Native American and Aztec motifs became part of this very American style of architecture and it was so beautifully executed.

How was the auto industry reflected in the architecture?

It was a handful of businesses and powerful entrepreneurs wanting to one-up the other companies, using the very best architects and craftsmen and sculptors.

One of the buildings I shot was the Model T headquarters. It’s a national historic site, but it’s abandoned.

What will happen to the buildings you photographed?

A job for a lot of people there is scrapping buildings. They steal scrap from these opulent structures, and then eventually the buildings collapse.

It’s sad because a lot of buildings like the University Club, this incredible stone structure with wood panelling throughout, they go at the mahogany with axes just to get the copper pipe out. 

We don’t even have buildings like that in Vancouver, so to see them ripped apart is sad.

That was the purpose of photographing these buildings. And the people there were so generous with their time helping me over the years because you have to be safe and cautious and respectful of the people in these neighbourhoods.

It’s a team effort. You can’t travel alone. These people know it’s important to tell these stories because they are important structures.

Philip Jarmain’s show “American Beauty: The Opulent Pre-Depression Architecture of Detroit” will be on display until October 19th. 

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