For more than half a century, photographer Russ Marshall, 80, has captured Detroit’s might, grit and indefatigability, bearing witness to the city’s political and social upheaval through the eyes of its residents.
In the exhibition “Russ Marshall: Detroit Photographs, 1958-2008,” now on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the artist’s life-long project comes into view in over 90 enduring black and white images. These selected photographs from Marshall’s extensive archives focus on the city’s people: at work, in protest and at rest.
Across five decades, Marshall’s photographs “reveal the humanity behind industry,” DIA Curator Nancy Barr said, “prompting viewers to consider the intimate link between the ways people make a living and the ways they live.”
In 1958, when Marshall first began to create a name for himself as a photographer, Detroit was a global epicenter of manufacturing, presenting the possibility of middle-class lives for all, including Black people who flowed in steadily from the South in search of a taste of America’s promise. Nearly two million people called Detroit home at that time.
Born in 1940 in South Fork, Pa. to a family of farmers, coal miners and factory workers, Russ Marshall was just 3 years old when his family moved to Detroit. They made home in one of the city’s early federal housing projects. Marshall attended Cody High School on the city’s west side; while his father, uncles and aunts worked in the city’s sprawling centers of industry: Chrysler, Ford and Great Lakes Steel.
The images themselves are a testament to Marshall’s skill in using his camera to observe the world as it actually happens, rather than styling it to create a story. Of his photography, Marshall writes, “The ultimate modus operandi was ‘candids’ — photographing people in interesting situations without their knowledge or obvious awareness that you are taking their picture. Not to ‘catch’ anybody in unflattering ways but to depict the real and natural human condition.”
It’s an approach Marshall had to refine — particularly after an incident that got him into minor trouble in 1959 while he tried to photograph a pair of men without them noticing at Michigan Central Station.
“I was pre-focusing—the practice of estimating the subject’s distance and setting the focus ring to that number. Well, I did that and whipped up my camera to shoot at the same instance that both men looked at me as the shutter clicked,” Marshall remembered. “I suppose in my inexperience I probably looked like I got caught stealing. You know that look. The man with the newspaper came over and scolded us for taking their picture and sat back down. Lesson learned.”
Marshall’s focus on everyday life is teased out in the exhibition to further the DIA’s mission to help visitors discover personal meaning through the experience of art. And the images Marshall captures reveal a more nuanced, humanistic view of the city than the most prevalent Detroit photography of the past couple decades. “Detroit took a beating image-wise over the last 10 to 20 years, particularly in regard to some [visiting] photographers’ focus on the city’s vacancy and ruins,” Barr explained.
“The rise of social media and the internet aided and abetted this one-dimensional narrative,” she added. “But these images, although real, were just not the Detroit I know. And the photographers working here have so much more to say about the city and the people who live here. They bring a great amount of dimension to the visual record of the city and they enrich ours and others’ understanding of Detroit’s culture.”
Marshall captured a holistic portrait of life in Detroit: weathered, watered and worthy for all its residents. In “Russ Marshall: Detroit Photographs, 1958-2008,”the Detroit Institute of Arts presents the light, dignity and resilience of Detroit through the lens of one of its own.
Over the 50 years traced in the exhibition, Detroiters’ lives in the city stretched, grew, strained and settled. Michigan Central Station, once bustling and restless, sat dormant for decades.
The city’s population began to reflect the depot’s silence; people left just like the trains did. Some said this giant of a city was put down to rest. But Detroit is the place where tens of thousands of workers formed labor unions that even Henry Ford himself had to recognize; that nurtured General Baker and proffered James and Grace Lee Boggs the seeds to plant a Detroit Summer.
And as Russ Marshall’s photos illustrate, Detroiters are never down for the count.
“Russ Marshall: Detroit Photographs, 1958-2008” is on view at the De Salle Gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave. in Detroit, now through June 27, 2021. The exhibition is free with general admission but timed reservations are required for entry. Find hours and ticketing information here. Museum admission is free for Wayne, Oakland and Macomb residents.