Two recent bodies of work by photographer Corine Vermeulen navigate the space between poetic vision and objectivity. Shot in Medellín, Colombia, and Detroit, Michigan—and consisting of portraits, landscapes and still lifes—the photographs frame their subjects in ways that highlight their singularity and give a hopeful sense for the future. Portraying resilient urban communities in the midst of reinvention, the images powerfully suggest new forces of revitalization emerging in contemporary cities.
An exhibition at Susanne Hilberry Gallery focused on the series “Obscura Primavera,” shot by the Dutch-born, Detroit-based photographer in Medellín between 2009 and 2012. The images demonstrate signs that life in Medellín today consists of much more than the crime and hardship for which it has long been known. Although some portraits in the series are of uniformed soldiers and private-security officers who embody the ongoing, though potentially waning, conflict between Colombia’s government, paramilitary groups and drug traffickers, many focus on civilians in their domestic settings and convey an optimistic picture. The homes are populated with family photographs, decorative flourishes and home-entertainment systems. Depictions of small-business owners emphasize local economic activity and an investment in community, while views of a recently constructed cable-car system—some lines of which take riders up the mountain and into nature (Medellín sits in a verdant valley in the Andes)—convey a growing amount of leisure time. There is a consistent confidence and stylistic individualism to the people photographed, who suggest proud representatives of a diverse and multiethnic society. Emblematic of this individualism were two side-by-side portraits from 2010 of the same non-gender-normative subject, Matteo, who poses naked in Matteo (as a girl) and clothed in Matteo (as a boy).
Short statements from the portrait subjects appear in the exhibition catalogue. One subject, Nico, questions what it means for a country to be designated “third world,” asking whether the United States, given its economic and health-care issues, should actually be given that label. “Colombia is getting stronger by the day,” he says. “In ten years . . . we are going to be amongst the most powerful in South America.”
An exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, on view through May 17, focuses on Vermeulen’s series “Photographs from the Detroit Walk-In Portrait Studio” (2009-14). (A supplemental section of the show offers works from the series “Your Town Tomorrow,” 2007-12, which features Detroit landscapes and additional portraits.) Vermeulen’s walk-in studio was originally a house in a low-income neighborhood. She then turned the studio into a roving set-up, bringing her camera and lighting equipment to different locations around the city and photographing people involved with particular causes or activities.
As with Medellín, Vermeulen presents postindustrial Detroit through a poetic point of view, bringing out the unique beauty of her subjects in carefully lit, highly detailed images. Here, however, there is more of a focus on activists, creatives and members of subcultures. Urban farmers and recyclers, “jit” dancers and children from alternative schools, custom-bike riders and protesters—all pose for Vermeulen’s camera, the images underscoring the qualities (tolerance, cooperation, a desire to redefine identity and community) upon which hopes for Detroit’s revitalization are pinned. Statements from the portrait subjects are given a more prominent place here than in the Medellín project, through interviews excerpted in wall texts and playing in audio recordings.
What connects Medellín and Detroit, Vermeulen’s work suggests, is a desire to reimagine life in the metropolis. In both cities, nature erupts from the urban fabric in surprising ways; and the populations seem likewise to have grown more diverse and complex despite inhospitable conditions.