“Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes,
small pieces of history in suspension.”
Yves Marchand (b. 1981) and Romain Meffre (b. 1987) are two French photographers who met through a mutual interest in contemporary ruins. They began their collaboration in 2002 by exploring Parisian remains before traveling to America and producing their seminal work The Ruins of Detroit.
Since completing their seminal work, Ruins of Detroit (Steidl, 2010), Marchand and Meffre have dedicated considerable energy to Industry, an ongoing project documenting the rise and fall of the industrial landscapes of the West.
Shooting with a large format, custom-made camera, taking advantage of natural light and using long exposures, the images embody the unique atmosphere of each location. Their photographs retain a formal quality and are conceived as a document, giving the viewer a glimpse of a building’s former glory.
THE RUINS OF DETROIT
The Ruins of Detroit is Marchand and Meffre’s seminal work to date. At a time when the world had seemed to have forgotten about Detroit, Marchand and Meffre spent five years exploring and documenting Detroit’s abandoned buildings. In doing so, they told the story of the Motor City and its current state of decline through a cinematic series of starkly beautiful photographs.
Once one of the wealthiest cities in the world, Detroit produced the single most important consumer product of the modern age: the automobile. At its peak, it was the world capital of car production and home to two million people. One factory, The Ford River Rouge Plant, employed more than 90,000 workers and its assembly line extended for almost a mile. This monumental success attracted the great architects of the period and the eclecticism of the city’s building programme reflected every fashion of the day.
Yet the American dream soon turned into a nightmare. The 1950s saw machines replace workers and, in the following decades, hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost as the international car market changed beyond recognition and foreign car manufacturers successfully competed for their share of the US market.
The images bring to mind a Biblical disaster; it is as if all Detroit’s citizens had fled. The abandoned factories and buildings, vacant schools and derelict ballrooms, to name but a few, are a poignant reminder of the fragility of the modern world and, possibly on a different scale, of a now ‘broken America’. These beautiful, but disturbing, images look uncompromisingly at the remains of the once-astonishing Detroit, as a then global centre of capitalism and its following, even more extraordinary, descent into ruin. One is reminded of Detroit’s prophetic motto:
Speramus meliora, resurget cineribus (“We hope for better things, which shall rise from the ashes”)
Marchand and Meffre’s series of Theaters was born out of the five years they spent photographing Detroit for their critically acclaimed first body of work, The Ruins of Detroit. Noticing the sorry state of many of the movie theatres they came across, they began to investigate beyond Detroit and found that this was the case all across America. Many of the theatres date from the golden age of American film when the big studios competed to build extravagant venues to entice and thrill their audiences. Sadly, over time, multiplexes and shopping malls made these theatres redundant and they inevitably fell into disrepair. Many were converted into a multitude of purposes, ranging from churches, retail space, flea markets, bingo halls, discos, supermarkets, gymnasiums, or warehouses – often with comical results! Some remain relatively unchanged, while others clash with their newfound purpose creating unexpected spaces which act as fascinating documents of American History.
Hashima, the ‘Island on the Edge,’ and commonly referred to as Gunkanjima, lies about 15 kilometres off the coast of Japan. Today, the island is dark and silent, but 50 years ago, it was the site of a prosperous coal mine with long tunnels descending to coal beds under the bottom of the sea. It was also home to a thriving community with one of the highest population densities ever recorded on earth. Gunkanjima’s fortunes started on a downhill slide in the late 1960s when Japan’s economy soared and petroleum replaced coal as the pillar of national energy schemes. Coal mines across the country began to close; Mitsubishi slashed the work force at Gunkanjima step by step, retraining workers and sending them off to other branches of its sprawling industrial network. The coup de grâce came on 15 January 1974, when the company held a ceremony in the island gymnasium and officially announced the closing of the mine.
Gunkanjima has been published by Steidl in Spring 2013.
Marchand and Meffre’s latest series, Lebanon (2017), is shot in Tripoli. Set in the monumental Tripoli International Fair, it captures one of the five largest exhibition centres in the world, designed in 1963 by Oscar Niemeyer, whose projects include the Cathedral of Brasilia and the National Congress of Brazil.
However, Niemeyer’s 15 buildings were left incomplete due to the outbreak of the country’s Civil War in 1975. This remains a 10,000 hectares construction site.
Lebanon continues Marchand and Meffre’s themes of ruin and absence, but instead of alluding to the melancholy of glory days gone by, it conveys a sense of hope with its enormous structures waiting for an inauguration.