An Introduction to Brian Day, Artist
“MADE IN DETROIT.” Nearly everywhere you find Brian Day’s name, those words are stamped beneath it. To many outsiders, the phrase “MADE IN DETROIT” evokes rugged character borne out of gargantuan early 20th century ruins, of uprisings, of economic hardship, and many other stereotypes that, through the years, have come to define this international industrial hub.
For Day, it’s clear Detroit is something more, as is evident in the many photography portfolios to which he is constantly adding and editing down. Day hails from the West Side of Detroit, born at Mount Carmel Hospital, which doesn’t exist anymore. He grew up during some of the most trying years of the city and still lives just a few miles from his childhood home, setting his camera-equipped drone alight and examining Detroit’s most recent renaissance.
If you’re not already familiar with Day’s work, his aerial series, “Detroit From Above,” is a great introduction. Black and white images taken from (the maximum allowable recreational flight height of) 400 feet above the city’s iconic art deco and mid-century modern architecture and infrastructure have been printed extra-large, with some prints as much as six feet across. Viewing the images at this size offers a sense of weightless examination of scenes Detroiters will realize, after a moment, that they know inside and out, yet have never before seen from this vantage.
These works are remarkable not only because of the height from which they were photographed, nor their immense size–something Day admits was a scary decision, having previously maintained, “bad photographers print their images large to take away from the shoddiness of the work.” Their beauty lies in Day’s complete attention to detail. His camera lens is exactingly squared above its subject matter, which is exposed and subsequently processed with the artist’s discerning eye. Structures converge and diverge, patterns are traced and shapes frozen, details previously unknown are on display in Day’s work: for example, look closely in the center of an image of Hart Plaza’s gleaming Noguchi fountain, which from above takes on a new form, appearing almost to be an ultramodern piece of jewelry, until one notes the liquor bottle that one can imagine was tossed to its final resting place during a jam-packed music festival.
In a recent sit-down over coffee at Urban Bean Company off of Capitol Park in Detroit, Day said his aerial photos straddle the line between documentation and fine art, allowing people to see the “other side of the coin” and to examine how the buildings he depicts from the air play a role in our history. He feels that people who are from here, as well as those who have been here for years, may take our city for granted, and his images allow Detroiters to instead be captivated by their home, making a game of determining his images’ locations. He also realizes the appeal his works have to those unfamiliar with Detroit because of their abstract, graphically inclined nature.
It was not surprising to learn that a young Day had initially entered college with aspirations of earning a degree in architecture. He took that path on for a time, only to retrain his eye on physics, and ultimately finish out with a passion for computer science. He is endlessly curious. A decade ago, that curiosity and penchant for technology and new mediums found him headed out with a friend, new camera in hand, delving into making photographs.
His audience should be grateful that he stuck with his newfound hobby. He is constantly acquiring new tools to make his images, and can usually be found carrying several lens-equipped devices, from a small Sony to his aerial rig to his Leica—whatever gets the job done. He has found inspiration in Gordon Parks not only because of the artist’s image-making, but also because he made films and wrote music. For Day there is something captivating about what he calls “the intellectual stimulation of switching gears.”
When asked to describe the legacy of Detroit, Day says, “I think Detroit was always intended to be a family town. It was always a blue collar town. And I think there was always an intention for minorities to have a place in Detroit. There was always an intention to create space for multiple cultures here. I hope that we don’t lose that, as the city sort of reboots itself.”
One physical space still holding strong for many cultures here is shown from another unlikely dimension: In the epicenter of Detroit’s resurging downtown district, the colossal 24-foot-long outstretched fist and arm of the “Monument to Joe Louis” sculpture by Mexican-American sculptor Robert Graham aims its punches at racial injustice, symbolizing the boxer’s fight against Jim Crow laws. At street level, the closed fist faces the Detroit River. But Day has documented it from a rarely seen angle, from above, and the image he captured and printed at the height of the average man is framed and oriented with with Louis’ fist raised to the sky..
I tell him about the moment I first saw his printed aerial image of the fist. Following the eve of the Black Panther release nationwide, and with my friends’ fresh enthusiasm for the film bubbling over at the forefront of my mind, its power struck me. Because of Day’s image, that sculpture, for me, suddenly became something much more iconic, representative more of a city than just a memorial to an athlete. He said of the image, “So that shot… for one thing, I didn’t know that the fist had veins on it. I never would have known that unless I shot it from above.” He continued, “With all of those aerial shots there’s always the conundrum of which direction, which orientation.” He says he played with many directions. “And then one day, I turned it vertically, and I was thinking, it takes on a completely different meaning. When you look at it horizontally from the ground, it implies fighting. When you look at it from above, and the fist is pointed vertically, it implies victory to me. Or struggle. I appreciated the way it kind of surprised me.”
While Day’s images may only occasionally surprise him, viewers of his many series can be continually surprised by the familiarity and intimacy with which he addresses his subjects. His finesse is not limited to the abstracted aerials seen in “Detroit From Above.” He manages to occupy space as a street photographer who somehow avoids voyeurism, instead welcoming viewers to understand the emotion within his frames. There is the confident stride of a man named Mr. Ace in a show stopping red suit and matching shoes, the elation of a boy racing down a massive slide, legs stuck in a burlap sack, arms joyously tossed in the air. There is soft movement from long-exposed willows in winter along a snow blanketed riverbank. When Day does document better known settings of firefighters responding to neighborhood blazes, the fastidious attention to light, texture, and posture lends serenity to what might otherwise be a sensationalistic scene. These are people all Detroiters know, and images everyone here recognizes. Day presents Detroit to his audience as it really is.
To date, Day’s photography has been exhibited in Detroit several times over. While his focus is on the way Detroiters react to his work, his images have become known well beyond the boundaries of the Mitten state–his work has been noticed by collectors and fans from around the US, and as far away as Germany, China, and Norway.
Day encourages the next generation to not only tell the stories of single parent families struggling, but also of “black boys in Detroit that have their mother and father. I’m one of them! Raised with both my parents.” He says, “There is nothing wrong with highlighting some of those positive stories. Yes, there are boys and girls here who are straight-A students. Yes, there are Muslim and Arabic families that blend just fine with the community, and just want to be accepted. I would love to see more photographers branch out and find those programs, those little cubbies of stories around the city.”
Looking ahead, Day’s own plan is to continue making images. He says, “Working on multiple projects is a personal obsession more than a mission, per se.” He’ll continue to chase his own curiosity across Detroit, adding to the many series he maintains, and providing the rest of Detroit with a comprehensive visual dialogue of its hometown.
To see more of Brian’s work and connect with him visit his website at brianday.org
Interview by Karah Shaffer