University of Michigan Application for the Roman J. Witt Residency at Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and the Institute for the Humanities

Photographing Abandoned Detroit Train Station: Residency Application for The University of Michigan

The University of Michigan Application for the Roman J. Witt Residency at Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and the Institute for the Humanities

The fine art night photography project “Dark” traces changes to the manufacturing identity in the United States while engaging with local communities.

Set in the Michigan Central Station in Detroit, the goal is to capture deindustrialization’s impact reflected both in the devastating loss to communities and its eerie beauty documented through night photographs of the abandoned interiors. The results are a portfolio of prints exhibited locally, nationally, and internationally, a book, lectures, and more.

(If the Michigan Central Station is not available, other similar abandoned industrial sites will be sourced in Detroit or elsewhere, such as the Roosevelt Warehouse AKA Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, The Packard Automotive Plant, Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, etc.).

Beyond documentation, however, these images crystallize a sense of inertia taking place in what we think of as “home.”

As the abandoned building and land are surveyed–as if a cultural truth is being unearthed–I feel a link between environment and home. Just as traditional cities’ role as manufacturing centers is quietly abandoned, so too is the present-day impact mostly forgotten. In both cases, there is a feeling of absence, impending human failure, tragedy, and the crushing force of nature being played out among the ruins of the environment.

Working directly with students and others in the community is key to this interdisciplinary project. University of Michigan students, U of M Schools, and local people will help to play a crucial role in its completion. This kind of cross-cultural collaboration is essential to the project and will support the work to have a lasting impact.

Project Details

  • Specifically, I will photograph the vast, empty interior landscapes with traces of human intervention–all taken at dawn, twilight, or nighttime in the Michigan Central Station, including:

  • Nearly black interiors of the large spaces are made in complete darkness.

  • Archways and hallway structures, perhaps reminiscent of Roman baths or temples.

  • Afternoon light falling on parts of the building, inspired by painting.

  • Close-ups of metal parts, walls, or other fixtures–inside and outside–at night.

  • Streaming moonlight coming through skylights partially illuminating the space.

  • Views of stars seen from skylights or windows captured during long exposures.

  • Stairways leading up; mechanical rooms filled with machinery, pipes, etc.

  • Office rooms, hallways, or other lesser-visited spaces.

  • Exteriors of the buildings, with glowing lights from the background.

  • Views along the paths outside at night.

  • Photos along the streets with trees or other debris partially visible.

I will take approximately three to four thousand photos. These will be carefully edited, color corrected, and culled into a portfolio of about thirty 40×50” prints and a book dummy for eventual publication. This body of work, along with the concept of “home,” will become central topics for talks and presentations.

This project represents a direct expansion of work developed during a recent Fall Prairie Ronde artist-in-residence in South West Michigan. Set in an abandoned one-hundred-year paper mill in Vicksburg, Michigan, I created a new series of work exhibited locally, gave a presentation, was interviewed in a local NPR radio show, and appeared in a video about the mill.

Artistic Approach

I make photographs intuitively in nearly complete darkness. Taken at night with extremely long exposures of an hour or more, I usually cannot see what is in the camera’s viewfinder and instead stand beside the camera, “feeling” the image and framing it in the dark. Only later do I discover what I’ve photographed. This process of revelation is a vital element of the work.

Artistic inspiration comes from history, painting, cinema, and photography.

As an undergraduate student, I studied history and art history. After spending a semester abroad in Rome, I became fascinated with early church mosaics, early renaissance painters such as Giotto, and later, the usage of light by Hudson River School painters such as Frederic Edwin Church and paintings by Edward Hopper.

The work of European cinema artists like Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Neo-Realist films, and movies my father–who worked as a motion picture executive–would bring home and play in our basement were also of interest.

I am inspired too by photographers capturing changing worlds. These include Eugène Atget’s Nineteenth-Century Paris, Carlton Watkins’ American West, and those working at night, such as Brassai, who photographed Paris in the 1930s and Robert Adam’s Colorado in the 1960s.

Significance of Location

I feel the Michigan Central Station tells the story of Detroit–and other urban centers–in one structure: it was built as a palace, was abandoned, is now being renovated.

The Beaux-Arts style architecture, designed by architects who had worked on Grand Central Terminal in New York, includes a waiting room modeled after an ancient Roman bathhouse, with walls of marble, vaulted ceilings, and a large hall adorned with Doric columns. It was the tallest rail station in the world at the time of construction, and in 1915, more than 200 trains left the station daily. But it closed in 1988, and later, was abandoned. After decades of churning ownership and varying plans, it is now part of a $1 billion project by Ford.

To me, the Station embodies “home” in several ways. It acts as a central historical identity of the once-prosperous city but is now forgotten; it was a gateway hub that radiated connections delivering prosperity and workers; it represented literal and metaphorical movement and change, but among inertia and abandonment, it also reveals beauty.


Informed by the environment, history, and culture, I photograph the haunting sense of the building’s interior and surrounding land at night. The focus during the Witt Residency Program is to both trace evidence of the changing industrial landscape and to capture a feeling of loss and mystery in a changing “home.”

During the day, I will explore the history of the building and its connection to the city. Based on this, I’ll identify significant elements of the site which are in use or are hidden in the overgrown land, discarded, forgotten, or unused. I’ll note these locations during scouting walks.

Later in the day, photographs will be created chiefly inside, illuminated only by natural light, the shadow of late afternoon, moonlight, city lights glowing in the distance, or in complete darkness where features, rooms, structures, and paths reveal themselves.

I will continually review the work made the evening before, generating a draft portfolio of work as the project proceeds. These could be used as the foundation of possible talks or presentations given while as a Resident and will be shared on social media daily.

I am very self-driven and work well alone, having spent long periods in remote areas, but thrive best being connected to creative communities and crave working with the students and others who will play critical roles in the project.

Also, since I live in a cramped 250 square foot apartment in New York, I have never had my studio, access to a photo printer, lived in a stimulating academic environment and had free time dedicated to my passion for longer than a month. And as mentioned, the Stamps A-I-R is an expansion of work developed at a recent Michigan Prairie Ronde Residency fellowship set in a disused one-hundred-year paper mill. These are all essential for me as an artist now.

But more importantly, it is crucial to complete this project in 2021 to bring acute awareness to urban inertia and document changes before they metaphorize further. The only way to accomplish this is through generous support by the Roman J. Witt Residency.

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