Jean-Pierre Lavoie's friends in Montreal sort of scratched their têtes when he told them he was taking a whirlwind trip to Detroit. It didn't help much when he explained why.
He was coming to a city with a reputation worse than its unemployment rate so he could stand outside large crumbling buildings and take photos.
Specifically, Lavoie took panoramic pictures -- sweeping, 360-degree views of places like the old Packard and Fisher Body factories. Turning still photographs into interactive displays is a long and labor-intensive process, and three weeks after the visit, only one of his Detroit subjects is ready for its close-up. But that package is riveting -- and a sign that at some level beyond decrepitude, there's art.
Lavoie, 41, didn't expect to get past the barricades at the Michigan Central Depot. But when a two-man cleanup crew in hardhats opened a gate, he talked his way inside. In barely more than an hour, he captured the majesty and waste of what has become the city's emblematic ruin.
The last passenger train rolled out of the station in early 1988. It had been largely irrelevant for at least a decade before that. An entire generation has known the building only as a useless relic, and many of the people who remember it fondly haven't passed through the doors in 50 years. It's an enormous ghost.
With most of Lavoie's subjects at http://www.photojpl.com">www.photojpl.com -- the Eiffel Tower, or Maison Mère-Mallet Chapel in Quebec City -- the beauty is built in. At the train station, it's the concentrated desolation that becomes majestic. Click, hold, point, sweep: The destruction fills the frames.
"There is some kind of beauty in it," Lavoie says, or "at least an artistic quality. When you are inside, it's so huge, so striking.
"You think about what was in the past."
From job to entrepreneur
In Lavoie's past, he was an electrical engineer with an interest in cameras.
Now he's a former engineer who shoots stills and panoramas for businesses, museums and his own amusement. Recently, he shot Stevie Wonder's performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival; it's on his Web site.
The side-to-side, up-and-down, 360-degree process involves a high-end camera, a fisheye sort of lens, a tripod, a computer program and patience. The computer stitches together the images, but it's up to the photographer to make sure the proportion remains correct when a nearby object gives way to a distant one.
At home not long ago, he watched a show on his nearby TV about a journalist who filmed a short documentary on the condition of distant Detroit and the auto industry.
That was enough to get him off his couch and onto the streets of the city, where he was taken by the contrast between dismal areas and close-by spotless ones, and where he feared for his safety only once.
Facing facilities' challenges
He was on the east side of the city outside the Packard plant, which is about as difficult to get into as junior college.
"I saw some people walking by who didn't look very friendly," he says. Given the expense of his equipment and the fact he was alone, he opted to shoot quickly and retreat.
At the train station off of Michigan Avenue, he had more time and confidence. He didn't have the afternoon light, filtering through the west-facing windows and playing visual games with the dust, but he made do.
The dim bleakness contrasts with the vividness of the graffiti and the remaining tile. It's the tatter and decay that bring the scenes to life.
He calls the project "Decline of America," which sounds like gloating but is more a matter of translation for a French-Canadian who speaks English as a second language.
"Decline in America" is a better reflection of what he was shooting for. He also stopped at the Renaissance Center, still graffiti-free and designed to be an outcropping of hope.
His camera there panned from the tall towers to the river to Windsor. Outside the RenCen, it swept across a map of the world build into a plaza.
Renaissance is a word that needs no interpretation. Neither do maps, and neither did his pleasure at the symbolism. Reports Lavoie, "I said, 'Wow.' "
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