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British artist/photographer creates 'human atlas' of Detroit

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Pandemic or no, the world's interest in Detroit continues unabated.

The latest evidence is a limited-edition, interactive book, "i.Detroit: A Human Atlas of an American City" by British artist and photographer Marcus Lyon, with support from the Kresge Foundation and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

It's all very high-concept and intriguing. Lyon, who's published two other "human atlases" -- one on Brazil, the other on Germany -- spent about six months in Detroit over seven trips in 2018 and 2019 interviewing and photographing 100 significant city residents.

There will be a virtual book launch for Marcus Lyon's "i.Detroit: A Human Atlas of an American City" Oct. 15.

Now back in Britain, Lyon said the Motor City pops up frequently in his conversation.

"If you allowed me just a one-liner, I’d say Detroit is the largest small city I’ve ever been in," he said from his studio in south London. "It’s almost a village, really – certainly in the Black community. I was treated more like I was visiting a small country town in the South, with that warmth and welcome: 'Come in and have some food.'"

In a surprising move that sets this doorstop of a book apart from similar works is its use of DNA tracking to chart people's personal histories far into the distant past, giving us a global sense of how they, and their families, got to Michigan in the first place.

Detroiter and social entrepreneur Zsa Zsa Hubbard, as shot by Marcus Lyon in "i.Detroit."

"The DNA fleshed it out with historical perspective," Lyon said. "It gives you that X/Y axis. It takes you to a deeper place. You see slavery and the great migration. You also see amazing stories of people coming together in their DNA across borders."

As it happens, Lyon already had some connection with the state before he began the "i.Detroit" project.

Lyon has a sister in Traverse City, s flew through Detroit over the years. So he started with more than the outsider's usual context and knowledge.

Still, he said, at the project's beginning he had to face a group of skeptical Detroiters at a luncheon at the Detroit Athletic Club who wondered why the heck he -- a white, British artist -- should be entrusted with telling the stories of their community.

"I met with 50 Detroit leaders for what I can only describe as a proper Detroit grilling," Lyon said. "But after I was grilled," he added, "they all pretty much said, ‘Marcus, that’s fabulous – we’ll help you tell our story.’"

Artist Charles McGee is the very last profile in Marcus Lyon's "i.Detroit."

A nominating committee of Detroiters ended up picking the 100 individuals that populate the large-format publication. They range from admirable, if largely unknown, community activists and entrepreneurs to the very well-known -- like Charles McGee, the ninetysomething dean of the Detroit art community.

"We were unbelievably focused on telling the right story," Lyon said, "because so much of Detroit’s story has been told badly, illegitimately or with prejudice."

Mark Davidoff, who heads the Detroit Symphony Orchestra board and is CEO of The Fisher Group, met Lyon in 2017 at a conference in Bradford, England. Over a pint of ale, Davidoff said, the Briton explained what he'd done with his human atlas of Brazil, "Somos Brasil" (We Are Brazil). The Detroiter was intrigued.

When he got home, Davidoff showed Rip Rapson, the Kresge Foundation CEO, the Brazilian book.

"I said I think think this is an opportunity for Detroiters to tell their own story," Davidoff recalled. "And Rip looked at me and said, 'I’m funding this entire project.’"

In addition to the photos and text, downloading the "i.Detroit" app lets you pull up short, pithy audio interviews with each of the individuals.

"There are pieces of sound and quotes in there that are gobsmacking," Lyon said, "that will stop you in your tracks."

Asked what the italicized "i" stands for in the title, he explained that the initial tagged to a number of words he thought were appropriate.

British artist and photographer Marcus Lyon is the creator of the new interactive book project, "i.Detroit: A Human Atlas of an American City."

"Detroiters are pretty individual," Lyon said. "They do a lot of great things together, but you stand on your own two feet. So the ‘i’ seemed a relevant way to express that in a title.

"And what I loved about the idea of 'i.Detroit,'" he added, "was that I could italicize the 'i' and graphically it leans into the 'D.' It’s a wonderful way of using the design to talk about what is essentially an identity project."

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Virtual book launch for 'i.Detroit'

11 a.m. Thursday

Free

To register: visit eventbrite.com/e/119132870623  

marcuslyon.com