Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre met online in 2002, drawn by their love of contemporary ruins. Meffre was only aged 15 when he met Marchand, and they began visiting ruins in the suburbs of Paris to capture the lost grandeur of old movie theaters and document architecture in decline. In the beginning they took images separately, but after investing in a large format 4x5, they began their collaboration. They spoke to me recently from Paris about their photographic project, "Detroit in Ruins," published by Steidl in 2010.
Their visions of Detroit are the record of a fallen empire. What makes the duo's work different from Robert Polidori's photographs of post-deluge New Orleans and Chernobyl is that their focus is not a record of the aftermath of a natural disaster but of slow decay, caused by neglect. The photographs reveal the exotic in the ordinary and observe what is overlooked: dilapidated habitations, the hidden backs of dwellings, obsolete machinery, utilities in disrepair, the absurdity of once hi-tech systems, the extravagance of architecture devoid of function. The simple poignancy of a disused dentist's chair seems to reflect on the collective failure of a civilization to rise. But Detroit is only one of many world cities, and these images are universal in their depiction of the fragility of human empire-building.
On the other hand who can complain when vast tracts of downtown Detroit are being reclaimed by nature. Like the ancient temples of Cambodia the earth always wins against the will of men. The city's asphalt is cracking open and reverting back to prairie; foxes and deer are making malls and parking lots their new hunting grounds. The green invasion may enable a new vision for urban agriculture.
Here is poem that resonates on the rise and fall of past ambitions, Shelley's Ozymandias:
Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley I met a traveler from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal these words appear: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.