Photographer Jeff Morrison sets his sights on Detroit’s ‘guardians’ | Visual Art | Detroit
For many years, Jeff Morrison preferred to photograph nature photography and architecture. Eventually he found that his telephoto lens could photograph a different type of creature – the many sculptures and gargoyles found on Detroit’s buildings.
“It’s a little easier to get the shot,” he jokes.
When Morrison began exploring Detroit’s architecture and gazing high above the city streets at the sculptural ornamentation of its skyscrapers, a whole world of colorful characters opened up to him. Morrison calls them Detroit’s “silent watchmen,” and the photos and research are collected in Guardians of Detroit: Architectural Sculpture in Motor City, which Morrison will celebrate with a release party at the Detroit Public Library on Saturday.
“It’s really easy to walk by without seeing them,” says Morrison. “I’ve done a few tours with friends and people who’ve spent a lot of time in Detroit and they say, ‘Wow, I’ve walked past it a million times and I’ve never seen it.'”
The project grew and grew: on his way to photograph other buildings, he noticed sculptures on buildings – such as the guard dogs, lions and basilisks in the Bankers Trust Company Building in the city center or the symbolic reliefs in the SS Kresge headquarters (such as Eagle symbolizing the strength of the US dollar – Morrison points out that ironically, the stock market collapsed shortly after the building opened, ushering in the Great Depression.
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Noah Elliott Morrison
Morrison’s telephoto lens was practical, bringing in sculptures that would be practically invisible to the naked eye in full view. Given the level of detail in some of the sculptures, it’s noteworthy that the designers intended to view the sculptures from a distance. “You really see it in the old Wayne County Building,” he says. “The building’s gable is five stories above the floor, right? It looks like the level of detail, as well as the character and expression on the face, should be looked at at floor level.” Some intricate sculptures are about 20 or 30 stories above the ground. (Morrison repeats that all photos were taken from the ground. “I had a pastor in one of the churches – he saw some of the pictures, looked at me very sternly, and asked if I would continue climbing the outside of his building,” he says. )
Morrison found that Detroit’s sculptures came from a variety of influences. Trinity Episcopal Church, for example, was consecrated in 1892 but was built in the style of a 14th-century Gothic British church, while the Penobscot building, completed in 1928, mixes Roman, Native American, and Art Deco influences. The buildings in the book are sorted chronologically, with the project spanning more than 50 buildings and 300 pages.
One surprising thing that Morrison realized while researching the book was how productive Detroit’s skyscraper boom was. “You have the Buhl, Penobscot and Guardian buildings all within one block of each other,” he says. “They are all three skyscrapers with banking facilities and the ground floor and retail and then offices above. They are all designed for the same purpose. They were all designed by the same man, Landlord C. Rowland, with sculptures by Corrado Parducci. And you see them and they’re all so different. They went up about the same time, within four or five years. And it’s just amazing to look at the variation in them and see them all came from the same two people. ”
Morrison says he got into photography because of his father, Roger Elliott Morrison, an amateur photographer to whom the book is dedicated. (It must be genetic: full disclosure, Morrison is the father of photographer Noah Morrison, who is a frequent contributor to the Metro Times. Morrison’s maternal grandfather was also a photographer.) In the spirit of learning, Morrison also released a shorter, children’s coloring book version of the book and says he is available to speak about his research.
Please visit guardiansofdetroit.com for more information.
Guardians of Detroit is holding a release party on Saturday from 2:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. in the Music Room of the Detroit Main Library. 5201 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-481-1300; detroitpubliclibrary.org. Free entry.
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