Tale of two cities
By Todd Gerring
Through this weekend, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology will present the special exhibition “Red Rock & Rust Belt.” This unusual exhibition of photographs by Susan Webb explores the connection between two great cities that do not readily suggest comparison: the modern city of Detroit, Michigan, and the ancient site of Petra in modern Jordan.
Though separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles, the same achievements and challenges are recorded in their ruins. The photographs juxtapose images of urban decay with ancient remains, highlighting their similarities. As these evocative photographs also suggest, it is not just the physical remains of the cities that invite comparison but the struggles of the inhabitants as well.
Detroit, the largest city in Michigan, rose to prominence from meager beginnings as a French outpost in the early 1700s. By the 1920s, Detroiters had built a powerhouse of industry, manufacturing, and innovation with wide boulevards and stunning architecture known as “the Paris of the West.” Eventually, however, the city faced precipitous decline. What happened to the people that gave life to the city? Many have proposed answers: lack of diversity, unions, segregation, race riots, and white flight.
Many still wonder. A once grand and beautiful urban landscape with buildings that remind us of its glorious past, Detroit is now described as a “lost city.” Yet dedicated Detroiters still cherish the hope that this metropolis will rise again.
Petra lies in southern Jordan, about 50 miles south of the Dead Sea. A nomadic tribe known as Nabataeans made it their capital more than 2,000 years ago. Then the city was lost to the West for more than a thousand years, rediscovered only in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johan Ludwig Burckhardt. Today, the area around Petra is home to resilient Bedouin tribes and is one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites. In antiquity, Petra was the hub of spice and silk routes that connected the Far East with civilizations of the Mediterranean. The Nabataeans lived on a grand scale, carving their city out of the red sandstone cliffs, adorning their surroundings with beautiful gardens, colonnaded streets, theaters, and temples. Little is known of the Nabataeans, whose history is recorded only in the monumental structures they left behind.
As with Detroit, the decline of Petra continues to challenge our understanding. It may have been a lack of diversity, the loss of vital trade through the rise of shipping, or the development of alternate trade routes.
This exhibition of stunning color photographs will invite the visitor to look at both Detroit and Petra in new ways.
Susan Webb (Photographer)
Beginning with the Kodak Brownie her dad gave her when she was eight, there has been one constant in Susan Webb’s life: a love of photography. Born in the Blue Mountains of Australia and raised in Sydney, Susan channeled her innate visual interest into the formal study of photography in London, England.
A love of classics and the arts led her to archaeological photography. She has traveled and worked extensively throughout the Middle East and Europe, documenting excavations and found artifacts for several notable universities. Her photography is widely published academically. Susan has made Ann Arbor, Michigan, her home base but has spent part of almost every year in Australia. She views this exhibition as an opportunity to move from the exacting mode of academic documentation to a more personal artistic form.