Michigan’s Great Lakes: Jeff Gaydash Photography @ DIA

Installation View: Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash, Installation photograph by Olivia Gilmore, 2020

Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash at the Detroit Institute of the Arts on view at the de Salle Gallery from November 16, 2019, to May 3, 2020, presents nearly a decade of Gaydash’s work. A succinct retrospective, the exhibition documents his excursions to the Laurentian pools of the upper mid-east region of North America and their contiguous landscapes. His photographs, pristine, black and white prints, depict both natural and man-made phenomena in and around the largest aggregate of freshwater lakes on Earth, by total area. They possess a certain duality; a romanticism found in early landscape photographs of the late-nineteenth-century by photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, synthesized with the industrial photographs of the mid-twentieth-century by photographers such as Charles Sheeler and Margaret Bourke-White. Gaydash simultaneously elevates the natural while he depicts a landscape peppered with man-made structure and industry. Something particular about what Charles Baudelaire once said of beauty stands out in this dichotomy of forms:

              “Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quality is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions.” (Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Painter of Modern Life (Penguin Book Ltd 2010),p.494

An ethereal softness of the natural—the water, land, and trees—juxtaposed with the temporal structures of the age—lighthouses, defunct concrete slabs, and active refineries— make for beautiful images. Perhaps beauty is, “always and inevitably of a double composition,” as Baudelaire theorized. To qualify: Baudelaire’s opinions in mid-nineteenth century France were at times utterly erroneous, but that is another story and this theory of beauty as something dual-natured is worthy of examination.

Jeff Gaydash, Rockport Ruins Rockport, Michigan, Lake Huron, 2012 Carbon Pigment Print – 30”x74”

In “Rockport Ruins,” fog emanates from Lake Huron, both the water and the mist from a decrepit collection of what appears to be lumber, iron, and concrete to the right of the frame. Rockport was a limestone quarry, now it is a state recreation area. The pine trees on the distant shore of the harbor are hazy along the horizon line. The wooden stumps jut-out of the water like jagged teeth—sharp and uninviting; the remnants of industry sharply contrast against the placid waterscape.

Jeff Gaydash, Belle Isle Bridge Detroit, Michigan, The Detroit River, 2011 Carbon Pigment Print – 36”x36”

Both the water and the sky in, “Belle Isle Bridge,” have an otherworldly smoothness due to the slow-shutter speed Gaydash often utilizes in his process. When the shutter of the camera is open for a longer duration, the resulting image displays the passing of time represented in the slight blur. In addition, we see the grandeur of the Douglas MacArthur Bridge that connects Detroit to Belle Isle. Built in 1923, Gaydash’s chosen title evinces a sort of longing for the bridge’s original name as well as a time passed. The cantilevered concrete arched bridge feels as if it continues infinitely into what the vanishing point of the image.

Jeff Gaydash, Zug Island Detroit, Michigan, The Detroit River, 2010 Carbon Pigment Print – 36”x36”

In “Zug Island,” possibly the most striking photograph in the exhibition, the looming U.S. Steel refinery’s silhouette at night contrasts to the feat of human technology exemplified in “Belle Isle Bridge.” An industrial skyline is mirrored, albeit nebulously, in the eerily still Detroit River. If not for the reflection, the viewer might overlook the monochromatic flames which emanate from the plant, lapping at the thick murky air. Whether Gaydash intended to document an environmental issue or not, is perhaps beside the point; the photograph has a narrative of its own. Zug Island is nestled amongst multiple plants and refineries in the 48217 zip code of Southwest Detroit, known for being the most polluted in Michigan.

Jeff Gaydash, Solitude Metro Beach, Michigan, Lake St Clair, 2010 Carbon Pigment Print – 36”x36”

“Stranded,” feels antithetical to “Zug Island,” the tight framing of the tree branches in the tide of Lake Erie, in southwestern Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park, are a far cry from the industrial landscape. It exudes a sense of serenity and solitude, one discordant with the representation in the former photograph.  In this unfettered depiction of nature, the water and sky are a bright, silky grey, and blend together seamlessly. There is no horizon line, and if there were, it would be turned on its side. What the viewer thinks they see (an environment untouched by humanity) and what the reality is, is suddenly called into question.

The strength of Jeff Gaydash’s work lies in the cohesive, uninterrupted flow of the sublime landscape. His technically precise and masterfully printed images perfectly highlight the unique geographical feature that is the Great Lakes. Perhaps as viewers, we know not whether to celebrate the man-made as innovative or to critically examine our collective footprint in late industrialism. A similar ambivalence was captured in both the early and late landscape photographs of the modern era, as utopian images of the natural world gave way to the feats of human ingenuity, and eventually bled into more exasperating photographs of industry and environmental degradation. As viewers, we are invited to delve into this ambivalent, yet meditative space created by Gaydash. It is this with this paradox that we must contend. The exhibition, Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash does not heed a didactic warning of ecological doom, but rather is a nod—a poignant, cogent reminder—that the Great Lakes are a powerful yet vulnerable resource within a delicate ecosystem of which humans are a part.

Michigan’s Great Lakes: Photographs by Jeff Gaydash at the Detroit Institute of the Arts through May 3, 2020

100 Photographs: Detroit 1970-1990 @ CCS Center Galleries

100 Photographs: Detroit 1970-1990 opened to the public on November 16 and closes on December 15, 2019, at College for Creative Studies’ Center Galleries. Featured are five social documentary photographers: Michelle Andonian, David Griffith, Don Hudson, Dave Jordano, and Glenn Treist.

Installation Image, 100 Photogrpraphs 1970-90, CCS Center Galleres 2019 All images courtesy of Olivia Gilmore

The gallery is designed in such a way that viewers naturally move through the space in a counter-clockwise motion. A symbolic gesture—the cyclical and counter-clockwise arrangement of the photographs thrusts Detroit’s past into the present moment—linear time dissipates as recurrent history reflects back at the viewer.
A look (back?) into the mirror of history; motifs on situations that are strangely ongoing in Detroit’s and America’s present. In other words, the exhibition is a poignant reminder that we still have much work to do. The image planes are brimming with people: striking, gathering, celebrating. Of course, there are quiet moments of pleasure, too.

In its totality, the exhibition captures a parallel Detroit that is not so different from today, despite the modern trimmings that have made the city today appear different prima facie.

Michelle Andonian, Fleetwood Cadillac Plant, 1987

Andonian’s photograph, Fleetwood Cadillac Plant, 1987, captures a strike at General Motors automobile factory, likely before it closed the same year and left 1,500 workers jobless. There is a sense of solidarity between the picketing crowd, likely workers who were facing joblessness upon the plant’s closing. The photograph recalls the recent past: the nearly six-week-long United Auto Workers strike of G.M., which concluded in October of 2019 with workers successfully gaining wage increases and additional benefits; it also echoes the more than soon-to-be-laid-off workers at the G.M. Hamtramck-Detroit.

Glenn Treist, Woman with Roses on Overpass, Summer 1983

Triest’s image, Woman with Roses on Overpass, Summer 1983, is a sweet moment. Flowers cover a portion of the woman’s face, and although the photograph is in black-and-white, one could swear that the roses are yellow, or maybe pink. The viewer enters the frame and can imagine the vibrancy of the hot, summer day and the smell of the roses. It is difficult to say if she is aware of the camera or not—does she gracefully look away—knowingly? Or is she just as wholly absorbed as we are on her walk?

Dave Jordano, Man Handing Out Muslim Newspapers, Detroit 1973

Jordano’s Man Handing Out Muslim Newspapers, Detroit 1973 is of a man at perhaps the state fairgrounds or a public outdoor event passing out Mohammed Speaks the official newspaper of the African American political and religious organization the Nation of Islam, from 1960 to 1975. His brow is furrowed perhaps because of the camera nearby, because of bright sun, or a mixture of both. At first glance, he looks ahead focused intently on something else, however on second glance, we realize he could be looking at the camera. His crisp suit and pensive stance impart an absolute seriousness and determination.

David Griffith, Detroit, Michigan 1980

Griffith’s image Detroit, Michigan 1980 depicts a bevy of blonde women bearing sashes that read “Dutch’s Dollies,” along with matching gingham skirts and sheer, white blouses. Men are dispersed behind them. Dutch was Ronald Reagan’s nickname, and surely this was the Republican National Convention of 1980 held at the now-defunct Joe Louis Arena. On the right side of the image plane is a woman adorning a patriotic “I’m for Reagan” boater hat. The women are in song or in a chant. Not too dissimilar from the 2016 RNC outfits, except for the fact that at the latter convention, the skimmer hats were replaced with cowboy hats, and the outfits were patriotic cum cowboy regalia.

Don Hudson, Detroit, State Fairgrounds, 1980

In Hudson’s photograph, Detroit, State Fairgrounds, 1980, the focal point is of the man, kneeling on a blanket; he gazes through the eyepiece of an 81 MM Mortar assault weapon. The M29 Mortar was notably used just five years prior—throughout the duration of the Vietnam War. The man is flanked by other men and boys. Close by, on another blanket, stands a young boy, five or six, passively holding a rifle and smiling half-heartedly at his father snapping a photo.

100 Photographs: Detroit 1970 – 1990, CCS Center Galleries through December 15, 2019