A Strange Night Out in Detroit, ca. 1997

Every fall, it’s reassuring to see the articles posted online about how the meaning of photography changes when images are decontextualized, leading to the tension between what seems to be going on, and what the image actually depicts. This tension has been blamed for photography’s failure as an objective historical record, and credited for the medium’s potential to rise to visual poetry, allowing the viewer space to construct a narrative that takes on a life of its own, independent of the events that were actually recorded on film. This morning I saw an article featuring Joel Sternfeld’s masterpiece with the pumpkins and firefighters used as an example to support this point. The timing was odd, because late last night while looking for something deep in the recesses of that one storage bin that serves as a receptacle for random uncategorizable objects, I discovered an old book of matches emblazoned with the Zoot’s logo. Zoot’s was a much loved coffee house that served as the unofficial home of a fascinating cast of Detroit’s Cass Corridor (now mysteriously renamed “Midtown”) characters, both old school denizens and new school hipsters through much of the 1990’s.

What does this have to do with Joel Sternfeld? Firefighters were on the scene for the production of both Joel’s and the photographs I am presenting here. And Maybe if I use his name in connection with my own humble images, I too, will one day have articles written about the philosophical mysteries embodied within their regard, but probably not. Anyhow, It’s a tenuous connection to be sure, but that’s just the way my mind works. I won’t go into a treatise on the ways in which long forgotten photographs trigger or fail to trigger certain memories, but in this case what happened is that the match book reminded me of any number of wasted evenings that either began or ended at Zoots, and then I recalled one particularly strange evening involving firefighters (again the matches). This story plays out at Zoots, but it seems to begin at another venue, The Gold Dollar Saloon, a notorious dive bar that was mainly frequented by transvestites and hookers back in the day, but by my time had been mostly taken over by White Urban Pioneers (Hipsters), who would never have dared venture into the venue’s previous incarnation. Even back then I was annoyed by that scene, but I must have been trying to impress someone with my local knowledge, so somehow ended up at the place in question. Judging by the rough location of the negative sleeve in my “files” it was probably shot around 1997, although it could have been as early as 1993. Hazy supporting “evidence” existing only in my memory would corroborate the latter date. The chalk calendar in Zoots indicates that the time of year was early September, most likely a weekend night, judging by the nature of events, so very likely this happened exactly 16 years ago to last night, when on impulse, inspired by these vague recollections, I went to an overstuffed bookcase filled mostly unindexed negative binders. The first one I grabbed opened to the very roll of film I was remembering. While I will admit to having shot these images, most likely on a Nikon FM2, I’m not sure if the statute of limitations for some of the events that transpired have yet expired, so I will not tag or divulge the identities of anyone depicted in this series of images, even if I could remember who they were, or who I was with, which I can’t. At this point, even though I may have actually witnessed the events depicted, your guess is as good as mine what really happened that night.

Posted by scoopneil

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