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Arts & Culture
Wed September 11, 2013
Detroit after dark: a photographer, his dog, and a pickup truck
Most nights, photographer Bruce Giffin drives a pickup truck around Detroit, his dog Henry riding shotgun.
Giffin doesn't know what he's looking for: a couple kissing on their porch, maybe, or a late-night taco truck.
The results are photographs of Detroit's everyday people and places as many people never see them.
Michigan Radio’s Kate Wells tagged along on one of his night shoots, and brought back this report.
A night shoot with no road map
It's when Bruce Giffin says he doesn't care if we get shot tonight that I start wondering about this
"Like right now, if someone came out here and shot us, for me it would be almost poetic!” he says.
“It’d be like dying with your boots on. Because this is what I do!"
I would not find it poetic. And I tell him so.
“Well, not for you,” Giffin admits. “But for me.”
We’re across from the port of Detroit, and it’s getting dark.
It’s nearly Giffin’s new favorite time to shoot. At night, he says, the city is less cluttered. More surprising.
That’s why we’re standing on this empty, silent street tonight.
We’re next to a warehouse and an empty field, a few miles and a world away from the high rises downtown.
"Faces of Detroit" raises the profile of an artist
There's never a plan for these night shoots, Giffin says, when I first hop in his pickup truck with his dog Henry, who growls protectively whenever other dogs come into view.
“I don't know [where we’re going.] I don't have an agenda usually,” says Giffin.
“And as a result of that, usually magic happens somewhere. I don’t know where or when, but it almost always happens."
He embraces the whole dramatic artist shtick, but Giffin has the goods to back it up.
His reputation is growing fast, thanks in part to a recent Kresge Fellowship, one of the city's most prestigious arts grants.
And then, there's that series of portraits. Maybe you’ve seen them.
It's called "Faces of Detroit."
They're these massive, close-up shots of men, women and kids Giffin bumps into around town.
Some of them are homeless, some of them live in houses that are falling down around them.
Yet they’re poignant, joyful pictures of a couple kissing on their porch, a young homeless man in a suit, walking the streets with his resume, a little blonde girl with dirt on her face and a wicked smile.
In Giffin's words, his only goal is not to "make people look like jerks."
"And whatever they give me, that's what makes them different.”
“There's something a photographer needs, and there's not a word for it, and it's kind of indescribable. But it's the ability to get people to relax, and let their guard down, because they trust you."
Earning the trust of Detroit's homeless
And Giffin’s got that, according to fellow artist Stephen Magsig.
"They open up to him, and I don't think other people can get that from the people in Detroit,"
Magsig is a painter, and just wrapped up an exhibit with Giffin.
He says Giffin's photos are so good it makes him jealous – somehow, he says, Giffin gets at what Detroit is really like at the moment in time.
"Because he is a realist. But he has great compassion and empathy.”
“You know, we both have great empathy for the city. We love it, with all its flaws, and with all its good things. You know, you take the good with the bad. It's kind of like a marriage."
But in any good marriage, you’ve got to keep things fresh.
Which is why Giffin and Henry now take the pickup out at night, when Giffin says things look new.
"If I drive up this street in the daytime, I see this,” he says, motioning to the strip malls and pedestrians.
“And I've seen this a million times. At nighttime, different things are lit. And I'll see things I've never seen before."
The Edward Hopper of Detroit?
Giffin’s work is getting a lot of comparisons to Edward Hopper, the painter best known for his brilliant “Nighthawks.”
And you can see the Hopper in Giffin's photos. They are simple, uncluttered, evocative, and more than a little lonely.
Things like a single car driving next to the railway on a snowy night.
Or the shadow of two men leaning over a table in front of a steamed up cafe window.
At night, "the magic" actually does happen
Back at the warehouse, just as we’re about to lose the last of the light, the "magic happens," just as Giffin predicted.
“Wait, what’s going on here?” Giffin asks, as streams of cyclists start filling up the street that was empty just a moment ago.
A parade of 20-somethings in bright t-shirts and cropped jeans are riding in a big flock of laughter, yelling, ringing bike bells and the occasional warning of “Car on your right!”
Seeing us, they seem glad of an audience, even a small one.
“Photos of the Port of Detroit, eh?” shouts one. They are clearly jazzed up on this nighttime ride through the city.
As Henry growls softly, Giffin runs back to the truck – to grab his camera.