J'Leon Love, boxer, Detroit. (Bruce Weber)
Detroit’s gotten a bit blasé about photographers sweeping into the city, eager for a slice of its visual grit and authenticity. So you have to give fashion photographer Bruce Weber credit. He landed here way back in 2006, years before it became artistically fashionable.
The Miami-based photographer, whose show “Detroit — Bruce Weber” opens June 20 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, came eight years ago to do a fashion shoot with supermodel Kate Moss for W magazine, of all things. But like so much of Weber’s work, the pictures ended up saying as much about the city and its people as their nominal subject, the clothes on Ms. Moss.
“The city just opened up to us,” says the 68-year-old Weber. “We loved the people we met. We went to Perfecting Church. We went to the Raven Lounge. We had a great time, and I always wanted to go back” — an opportunity he got in 2012, when he was hired to shoot a promotion for Shinola.
The DIA show, which runs through Sept. 7, will comprise more than 70 images from both visits, and is underwritten in part by Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair and other magazines that have long featured Weber’s work.
If Weber’s name is unfamiliar to you, there’s little doubt you’ve seen his stuff — in Abercrombie & Fitch stores, glossy magazines or, years ago, on giant billboards hawking men’s underwear for Calvin Klein.
Of the latter, DIA curator of photography Nancy Barr notes that Weber helped bring the male nude into the commercial mainstream, “whereas Mapplethorpe did the opposite, showing the dark side.”
She adds, “Weber always said he wanted to do to men what fashion photography does to women — objectify them.”
But while she’s always admired his photography, Barr admits she was a little skeptical before picking up his 2006 “Welcome to the Motor City” in W.
“A friend sent me the issue,” she says, “and there were pictures of the Raven nightclub, the Kronk gym, Belle Isle and people, people, people — real people, the sort you never see in the media, let alone a fashion shoot. I thought, ‘OK. He gets us.’ ”
Detroit commercial and artistic photographer Michelle Andonian says Weber’s work goes way beyond fashion, calling him “a gatherer of American stories.”
How Weber got launched in photography is a story in itself. Long before he became famous, Weber approached photographic legend Diane Arbus in a New York coffeeshop to say how much he admired her work. Arbus looked the young whippersnapper up and down, and asked if he wanted to shoot pictures like hers.
“ ‘No,’ ” Weber recalls saying. “ ‘Nobody could shoot like you.’ She said, ‘Sit down.’ And we became good friends.”
Weber may always have been destined for great things, but this chance encounter, he says, “changed my life.” Arbus introduced Weber to two other photographic icons, Richard Avedon and Lisette Model. The latter ended up becoming a mentor and teacher to the fledgling shutter-bug.
As for Detroit, Weber notes the Motor City has long mesmerized some of history’s most celebrated photographers, not least Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. More recently, French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre helped kick off the entire ruin-porn craze with their seminal book from 2010, “The Ruins of Detroit.”
Some Metro Detroiters bridle at what they regard as pictures designed to embarrass the city, particularly when shot by outsiders. But Weber, whose own work focuses on people, not collapsing buildings, reads far more awe than contempt in such images.
“I think photographers came to Detroit and shot the ruins because they saw something beautiful,” Weber says. “I think they wanted to send a message — that the city will rebuild and be well again.”
'Bruce Weber - Detroit'
9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday;
9 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, June 20 through Sept. 7
Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit
Free for residents of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties
General admission for all others: $8 adults, $6 seniors, $5 college students, $4 kids (6-17)