Image Tracking

Posted by Stephanie Zerweck

Detroit Skyline
Detroit Skyline, 1940s

 

Faces dancing in almost “On the Town”-type comedy, middle-school-aged Sinatras and Gene Kellys dart from location to location. Like the pages of a flip-book, they appear straddling first the porch of one house, and then at a glance, posed outside the local nickel ‘n dime. The boys follow the photographer, unaware of his less-than-comedic mission. In truth, there is no little man crying, “action,” or historian photographing for posterity’s sake. The photographer is from the City of Detroit’s Real Estate Corporation Council., snapping shots for the “Slum Clearance” demolition.

1552-56 Macomb, 8/29/1949
Children Playing Stick-Ball, 1552-56 Macomb, 8/29/1949

Within two years he is finished taking an inventory of the neighborhood. Fifty-some odd years pass, and a highway now runs through where the boys once played stick-ball and walked to school. Paradise Valley and Black Bottom are a memory, historically preserved by the same images that sanctioned their destruction–a series of photos donated to the Burton Collection.

Combing catacombs of images for use in the documentary, Regional Roots, I stumble upon these photographs, and in other collections, more stories like them. This is the nature of historical documentation. This is the nature of collective history.

Campbell, Campus Martius & Monroe, 1917
Campbell, Campus Martius & Monroe, 1917

Limited access in being from a family collection. Limited access, because a library grant would only fund uploading expenses for a partial collection. Limited access because the materials are physically breaking down. This is how history is lost. This is also how documentary has a unique opportunity to reach and preserve–preserve the images soon lost or destroyed or reach a wider audience with a story, and in so doing, preserve a history of oral tradition from viewer to daughter, to grandson, to infinity.

However, …as even documentaries have limits, the run-time and content succumbing to the edit, other sources can contribute to the preservation, …hopefully, even a blog.

Yee Children at Belle Isle, early 1950s
Yee Family Children at Belle Isle, early 1950s

(Much thanks to the amazing academic facilities listed:  Detroit Public Library, Walter P. Reuther Library, Charles H. Wright Museum, Arab American National Museum, National Archives, William L. Clements Library, and John K. King Used & Rare Books, and the Yee Family.)

Building the Railroad in Detroit, 10/7/1907
Building the Railroad in Detroit, 10/7/1907
Detroit Common Council, City Hall, 7/4/1871
Detroit Common Council, City Hall, 7/4/1871
Jewish Neighborhood, Hastings & Windor, 1910
Jewish Neighborhood, Hastings & Windor, 1910