Randy Wilcox is a prolific Detroit photographer. For more than a decade, Wilcox has been documenting Motor City on his popular photo blog dETROITfUNK, sharing a raw, unadulterated look into this urban landscape.
His coverage is uniquely all-encompassing: historical architecture, sweeping views of the city streets and surrounding neighborhoods, signage and graffiti, even subterranean snaps beneath abandoned industrial complexes. An archivist at his core, Wilcox’s coverage is honest, straightforward, and persistent.
I spent a few days shooting with Wilcox while he made his rounds in Detroit. We explored several iconic sites as we chatted about life, photography, and the state of Detroit. Read on for the exclusive interview.
Hillary Fox: How did you get started in photography?
Randy Wilcox: I started with photography in college, doing photo collages with acrylic paint. Color film, and I never did learn developing. I started doing more documentary photography in the early 90’s while I was in college, at a place called Wayne County Training School. (aka Northville Tunnels). It was in the late 90’s that digital cameras became affordable, and I switched to digital at that time.
HF: What compelled you to document Detroit and create detroitfunk.com?
RW: I grew up in the suburbs northeast of Detroit, so I have alway lived nearby the city. When I was in high school I used to hang out in the city at night and on weekends with my brother and his friends. It was my older brother’s friends that taught me the city, this was back in the mid 80’s when it was actually pretty scary.
Around the year 2000 is when I started creating a running collection of video and photographs of the city. Mainly because I had access to digital video and still cameras through work at the time. I was a member of a Detroit-centric Internet forum called detroityes.com back then, and I would mostly post my photos on that forum. But that forum, as people may know, quickly became very popular, and posting lots of photos there was no longer an option.
The owner of that forum, Lowell Boileau, is the main person in the Detroit region who started to document the specific places and buildings within Detroit for his Fabulous Ruins of Detroit project. It was his format that myself and so many others followed when we started our websites.
The other main influence on the way I approached dETROITfUNK was the weblog detroitblog.org. I still think that was the best of all the Detroit exploration websites. My site was formatted as an antithesis to Detroitblog, which is primarily writing with a few photos. My site is lots of photos with a few words.
The person who inspired me to research and go deeper into Detroit’s history is David Kohrman, whose Detroit website forgottendetroit.com is my favorite to this day.
Once I started the site, and began photographing all the wonderful buildings, I became overwhelmed with anxiety due to the mind numbing rate of speed in which things in Detroit are demolished or lost to vandalism or fire. Sort of a desire to photograph every square inch of the place before it all vanishes. Every time I go through the city, something is missing from before.
HF: I consider you an invaluable photojournalist and documentarian. How do you view the work that you do?
RW: I would definitely characterize the overall photographic approach to the website as a documentary. It is an ongoing archive, which is why I do many of the topics over and over throughout the years. Like a 10 year long stop motion film of the city.
HF: What do you shoot with? Do you have a favorite lens or piece of gear?
RW: I use Nikon SLR cameras, and I have a Lumix DMC-TS4 point and shoot. Favorite lens is definitely the Nikkor 80-200 2.8 silent wave. I don’t fuss over equipment too much, and I go through the cameras quite quickly, so I just replace each one with the best I can afford. I think I’ve had about 10 SLRs since I started the site.
HF: It appears you do very little post-processing. Do you have a preference for more natural imagery?
RW: Yes, I don’t do anything other than color correcting and levels usually. And I almost always shoot in natural light if I can, I hate flashes. I worked for several years doing newspaper photography, and you are not supposed to tart up those images at all. Supposed to be what really happened.
HF: You’ve been shooting in Detroit for more than a decade. What are some of the more extreme changes you’ve witnessed and documented in the city?
RW: The utter clear cutting of historical building stock is rather stunning. It sure feels like Detroit hates it’s own history, the way it treats itself. I am not alone in believing that Detroit needs these historical details to redevelop and draw people back in.
The other terrifying thing I have watched is the housing stock being destroyed wholesale with the foreclosure epidemic. Entire blocks of vacated houses that once teemed with life, filled with families and pets and activity. Whole neighborhoods became ghost towns in a very short time frame.
HF: What do you most enjoy photographing in the city? Do you have a favorite building or landmark?
RW: I love signs a lot. I love the complete random surprises I find while wandering around. The buildings are always an endless supply of subject matter. Favorite buildings: Masonic Temple, The Scarab Club. Favorite place to explore: Packard Plant.
HF: You must come across many great relics. What are some of your better historical finds?
RW: I found a Mad Men era collection of brochures on proper female secretarial behavior in the office place in the Donovan Building, those are hysterically funny. Also some Tiffany glass mosaic pieces from the Art Deco sign on the front of the Sanders building on Woodward at Henry Street. Some nice plaster details from the Fox library in the Ransom Gillis house. Some Civil Defense crackers.. I don’t collect too much stuff, so the things that I have are more like mementos.
HF: Earlier this year there was an outcry over a Nazi concentration camp “art installation” at the Packard Plant. It turns out you were the one who removed it. Can you tell me what went through your mind that day?
RW: Shock. Disbelief. Anger. As soon as I had a minute, I got in the car and went straight to Packard and tore it down…live on the 5 o’clock news, thanks to Hank Winchester. I wasnt alone either, I did it with one other guy. He had the same reaction as I did, and he arrived shortly after I did and asked if I would like help. We tore it down and smashed the letters into pieces.
The support I received for doing that was overwhelming. What was really stunning is the amount of negative reactions I got from people. Even from a couple people I thought were friends. I’m not comfortable doing such high profile things, but if I think it’s necessary I’ll do it anyway. Detroit has enough problems without stories of Nazi signs on abandoned buildings hitting the international news cycle.
HF: With so many decaying structures, Detroit can be a dangerous place to shoot. Have you had any close calls?
RW: I have had my share of injuries, mostly from climbing. Separated shoulder, hairline fracture in my heel. I was out with Nailhed one day, and I stepped on a 3 inch rusty nail that went all the way into my foot. That was nasty yet hilarious.
A few times I have been chased by stray dogs, or scrappers or crackheads….
Then there was the time I was in the basement of the Thornapple Valley slaughter house in Eastern Market in the winter. I went through a door into a dark hallway, and stepped into a manhole that had a layer of ice and snow over it. I was able to handle the fall and get out okay, but that is the one that I always remember when I am thinking about being cautious. I usually prefer to explore alone, and that is certainly one of the risks, is that I plunge down a hole in the basement of a slaughterhouse where nobody would ever even think to look.
HF: After everything you’ve seen, do you think Detroit is going to turn around anytime soon?
RW: No. Because none of the extreme measures coming from the State of Michigan are about fixing Detroit, they are only about balancing books and paying bankers. After that is done and everybody goes home, Detroit will be worse than before.
Hopefully I am wrong.
HF: What advice do you have for other photographers out there who are documenting their own city?
RW: Pay no attention to the others around you who are doing the same thing.
© Randy Wilcox / dETROITfUNK
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Photography by Hillary Fox