Born Gouda, the Netherlands, 1977 / BFA, The Design Academy, Eindhoven; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
Photographer Corine Vermeulen’s meticulously constructed projects, such as Your Town Tomorrow (Detroit, 2007–12), The Walk-in Portrait Studio (Detroit, 2009–14), and Obscura Primavera (Medelin, Colombia, 2009–14), reflect an artist willing to devote significant periods of time to, and seriously immerse herself in, her subject. Her works display an exemplary combination of empathy for their subjects and a very European sense of distance. The resulting images are instantly recognizable while remaining constantly surprising in their freshness.
After graduating from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2004, Vermeulen relocated in 2006 to the city of Detroit—whose condition she saw as occupying a “unique place in our current socioeconomic system”—to begin the project Your Town Tomorrow. The work was envisioned not as a survey of Detroit “as is,” but rather as a “glimpse into an alter- nate reality, where everyday life stands at a crossroads: between hope and despair, vulnerability and strength, the past and the future.” Although huge in scope, Vermeulen kept the project visually and conceptually coherent by using a variety of devices such as a distinct palette (green, white, black, and earth colors dominate with other colors used sparingly, and rarely in combination), a restricted subject matter (portraits and landscape dominate), an emphasis on nature (both directly in terms of landscape, but also indirectly through the location of portraits), an exclusion of contemporary technology and focus on agriculture, a repeated use of flat lighting conditions, a consistent relation- ship to the gaze of the portrait subject (typically expressionless and looking beyond the camera), and a recurring presence of vernacular creativity (through painted signs, tricked-out bikes, and heavily accessorized cars).
Vermeulen is clearly sensitive to the critical position race plays in how an image will be received by an American audience, and one feels she is consistently attempting to transcend this by forcing the viewer to focus on the humanity of her subjects; only the young, white, urban pioneers who were often the focus of the early stages of the project might, in retrospect, be seen as stereotypes. Overall, the series can be seen as a document of an exceptionally talented photographer in a unique time and place, but there is an alternative interpretation that starts from the centrality of themes such as self-sufficiency, sustainability, and racial diversity, and sees the project as an extended utopian tableau— utopian in the sense that, as Ernest Bloch wrote, “We need the most powerful telescope, that of polished utopian consciousness, in order to penetrate precisely the nearest nearness.”
Vermeulen’s next project, The Walk-in Portrait Studio, focused directly on the citizens of Detroit. Inspired by Walker Evans’s License Photo Studio in New York, she set up a portrait studio in a formerly foreclosed home in a hard- knocks part of the city. Neigh- bors were encouraged by fliers, posters, and direct invitation to visit the studio and have their portraits taken. Over a five-day period, eighty-five people took part, trading a story about the neighborhood in return for a print of their portrait. Despite the informality and chance-driven nature of the walk-in studio, Vermeulen was characteristically systematic in identifying and controlling all of the parameters that could affect the image. Some of the resulting images (e.g., Zana, 2009) were displayed in a local art gallery, giving a quietly dignified public face to city residents who are often treated as invisible. After this first iteration, Vermeulen took the walk-in studio to various schools in Detroit and surrounding areas, including the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a school for young single mothers (see Breanna and Her Son Perrion, 2011). An interesting counterpoint to these portraits is a parallel project in which she photographed residents of Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park in their homes, a series featured in the New York Times (see Danielle and Jonathan, 2009). More recently she has taken the concept to other community organizations and social groups in the city, displaying the completed project at an exhibition at the Detroit Institute of the Arts in November 2014, a fitting climax to a substantial body of work.
Steve Panton, October 2014/December 2015
Copyright Essay’d 2014