This deserves your notice: Detroit 1968, a collection of photographs — mostly portraits — from a city at its pivot point. It was originally published in 1972 under the title New American People, which fascinates me. The nameless faces peopling this book are photographed while they are in the midst of something: their work, their families, their breakfast, the business of their lives. At the time, they were understood as the faces of modern America. As the original introduction put it, written by the curator of the Art Institute of Chicago (which exhibited the photos): "All the photographs in the present collection were taken in 1967–1970 in Detroit, which in no way restricts their presentation as a brief of how Americans look and live today. These scenes and incidents might have occurred anywhere in the United States in this time when regional characteristics are disappearing … this is a view of a situation and condition, not a localization.”
Now, under its new title, their representation has narrowed significantly: they collectively incarnate this particular city, at this particular time. It is exactly a localization.
What has changed? Not the people. Not the photographer. It's us. Forty years later, we now need these images to mean something different. We know now, as the people in these images did not, that Detroit was on the brink of a radical transformation that for many would resonate most in the disappearance of people. Neighbors leaving seemingly overnight. Familiar bustling corner stores now empty, or a vacant lot. Seeing the faces of the people who were once here is what we now need most.
It is as if we are afraid that we could forget that Detroit — for all this city's epic backstory — is a city of everyday life. Of people who do things.
Enrico Natali originally came to Detroit in 1966, working as chief photographer for Hudson's department store. He told Lee DeVito of Metro Times that he never conceived of these images as individual photographs: they were always meant to be a collection.
“I was like a photographer monk,” he says of the three years devoted to shooting for the book. “I put these constraints on myself: I’m going to only photograph people. I’m going to try to photograph as broad a cross-section as I can. I’m going to use only one focal length, one kind of film, one developer, one size print.”
“I put all these constraints on myself, and that allowed the photography to fade into the background so I could just go into situations and work on automatic pilot,” Natali says. “At some point that situation starts guiding you. You get a message that’s bigger than you are.”
The Detroit 1968 collection was one of Enrico Natali's last major projects. At about the time he took these photographs, he began a meditation practice that began to take on greater and greater meaning in his life. He eventually abandoned photography altogether, and made his life in Calirfonia's Los Padres National Forest.
The new edition of this collection includes an introduction by Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City is the Place To Be.