U-M photography exhibition explores a dark Detroit
Detroit-based architect Catie Newell wants to capture her city’s darkness before it’s all gone.
Once the worst in the nation, Detroit’s streetlights are being replaced by thousands of LEDs in a $185 million infrastructure project. Before all the lights come back on, Detroit-based architect Catie Newell has been working to document that darkness in neighborhoods around the city.
“The lights are coming back, and we’ll lose that darkness,” said Newell, assistant professor at U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and recent recipient of the Rome Prize in architecture.
Newell’s photographs are the focus of a new exhibition, “Overnight,” opening at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) on Saturday, June 11. “Overnight” includes photographs from her “Rome” project, as well as new photography from the series “Nightly,” featuring nighttime images of Detroit streetscapes and interiors, alongside a site-specific sculptural installation commissioned by the Museum.
The installation draws on Newell’s architecture background, and is made up of materials—copper, aluminum, piano wire, LEDs—that reference the city streetlights, and will be lit at night. Newell’s fascination with light is a fascination with darkness. Through urban interventions, installations, and photographs, she investigates how darkness creates alternate environments, with unseen geographies, untold histories, and secret identities.
“I’ve always been interested in darkness and the night,” she said. “Colors look different. Things have a different hierarchy, based on what’s lit and what’s not.”
The most important element in her formal artistic vocabulary is light, not only as a “material” in its own right, but also as a condition. Varying in strength, form and duration, light constructs architecture as a situational experience rather than a fixed space.
Exploring the neighborhoods around East Grand Boulevard and the Grand Belt in the middle of the night, Newell purposely avoids the now-clichéd abandoned structures around the city. As Detroit’s new LED streetlights come in, she said she looks for hot spots of light surrounded by darkness.
“I’m more interested in capturing these moments that are kind of impossible,” she said.
Her “Overnight” exhibition will run at UMMA in the Irving Stenn, Jr., Family Gallery from June 11 to November 6.
UMMA admission is free. Galleries open Tuesday through Saturday 11 am to 5 pm; Sunday 12 to 5 pm; closed Mondays. Building open seven days a week, 8 am to 6 pm. Closed July 4, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.