Photographer Bill Rauhauser has captured decisive moments in Detroit for more than 80 years
One of Bill Rauhauser’s older photographs, courtesy of the Hill Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan.
By Glen Morren
Glen is a musician, writer, and chronicler of Detroit artists. His story was originally published on March 27 by Issue Media Group, a Detroit-based media company. We are republishing it here as part of a content-sharing partnership.
Two men stand on a corner outside of a bar, leaning on a metal trash bin with the words ‘beautiful Detroit’ stenciled on the side. They’re deep in conversation. One punctuates his words with a pointed finger, the other rests with chin in hand, listening.
This moment — just one brief encounter in the long life of an American city — happened decades ago, the subject of conversation likely forgotten. But the moment was captured and preserved by an unnoticed man standing in the shadows. Bill Rauhauser, Detroit’s greatest photographer, has captured thousands of these moments.
Rauhauser, 95, has been photographing Detroit for over 80 years, intently walking city streets in search of subjects.
If you’re looking for an idyllic snapshot of Detroit’s good-old-days, you may be surprised to find that Rauhauser’s photos aren’t sentimental portraits of a beleaguered city’s former glory. They are, however, honest and beautiful exposures of human life in a tough American city.
Focus on the city and its people
Rauhauser and the city of Detroit are connected. He has lived his whole life in Detroit and the nearby suburb of Southfield. The bulk of his photos were snapped on the city’s streets, the Motor City’s citizens his subjects.
Over the course of his career, Rauhauser came to appreciate his relationship with his home town and its people. Though the environs of a Midwestern industrial city didn’t have what he considered the beauty of a city like Paris, he believed that you had to really know your location to succeed in taking a great image.
“I wanted to photograph Detroit, even though it wasn’t Paris and it wasn’t Versaille. There were different kinds of photographs in Detroit, different subject matter. So I had to shoot what I could find in Detroit. And what I found there was something special that set it apart from New York…You have to get used to and feel at home in the area that you’re photographing. You feel comfortable and the people are more like you. The photographs are typical Detroiters, the aura of the city rubs off on them.”
While many contemporary photographers of Detroit turn their lenses to abandoned buildings and landscapes, Detroit’s most famous photographer has always focused his lens on people.
“He has a wonderful editorial eye that creates a narrative that the viewer can participate in,” says Tim Hill, owner of the Hill Gallery in Birmingham that represents Rauhauser. “A lot of the publicity around Detroit has not really celebrated the people. When setting up the current exhibit, we were trying to indicate a very human interaction and show scenes from Belle Isle to the State Fair, to downtown — daily life in Detroit. Bill’s photographs draw you into the story of the image with a great deal of ease, and he’s so humble about it.
“People are what cameras were made for, as far as I’m concerned,” muses Rauhauser. “What people don’t recognize is that the camera has the aura of death about it. Something is captured that no longer can be captured. If you see an old photograph, the subject of which may have died 20 years ago, or 100. It’s a memory thing and it’s essential that you recognize the photograph has that quality. And I think that’s what makes it a worthwhile art.”
From amateur to eminent artist
Photographers and aficionados know Rauhauser as the “Dean of Detroit Photography.” He founded and curated the first photography gallery in the Detroit area. His work was included in the hugely popular photographic exhibition “The Family of Man” (1955) curated by Edward Steichen. He was instrumental in the conception of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ photographic collection. He taught generations of students at the College for Creative Studies, where he is Professor Emeritus of Photography.
At 95, Rauhauser is still adding to his resume. This year he was named the 2014 Kresge Eminent Artist, the most prestigious art award in the city.
Yet Rauhauser did not always think of himself as an artist.
Rauhauser has been an avid photographer since 1934 when he was 15-years-old. For much of his early life he considered photography to be little more than a hobby, taking photos in his spare time from family life and his career as an electrical engineer.
In 1947, however, his views changed. It was then that he happened to see French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“I figured at that point that photography was a hobby,” remembers Rauhauser. “I couldn’t think of any good reason that photography could be considered an art form…When I saw the exhibition I was flabbergasted. This was exactly what I was looking for. Bresson’s work was just fantastic. On the plane back I read the book that came with the show, which said, ‘Photography is not a hobby, the art is in the seeing, it’s how you see, it’s what you see.’ That’s what art really was and I bought it — hook, line and sinker.”
Rauhauser continues to espouse the idea that a photograph can realize what Cartier-Bresson called a “decisive moment” — a moment that can’t be created artificially or manipulated by cropping or staging an image. It’s a moment that happens by chance. Hopefully the photographer recognizes and records it.
The iron laws of street photography
Over his career, Rauhauser has followed three rules of his own formulation — the “Three Iron Laws of Street Photography.”
“You have to be there, you can’t take the shot if you’re not there. So that’s obvious,” says Rauhauser. “The other one is being ready. Now that doesn’t just mean shutter speed and aperture and focus. It means your whole background. You have to be aware of everything you can to take a photograph. That means a lot of reading to build yourself up to understanding what you’re looking at, enough so you don’t have to think about it. You have it in your head and it becomes automatic and you may not think about it again until you make a print. The last one is being lucky. Lucky so someone doesn’t change position or see you. Those are the things needed to be a successful street photographer. It’s a great art just walking the streets and being ready to pounce, to see something that you know will be a great photograph and shoot it.”
Perhaps because of his connection with Detroit, his humble nature, and his career as an engineer, recognition of Rauhauser’s work over the years was limited. Despite the quality of his work, his fame did not extend far beyond a small scene of photography fans in the Detroit area. His work has only recently gained wider attention outside of the city.
“Bill’s work fits in with the best of street photographers of the 50s,” says Detroit photographer, artist, and writer Cary Loren. “A curator from New York who came to town was looking for Robert Frank’s work on Detroit. I showed him Bill’s work and he said after looking at it, ‘You know, I’d take Bill’s photos of Detroit.’ They’re on that level.”
After decades of relative obscurity, Rauhauser’s work and achievements are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
“The photographic community has known about his importance for a long time, and now the artist community has figured it out,” says photographer Carlos Diaz, a professor of photography at CCS and a friend and collaborator of Rauhauser’s.
At the opening of his most recent exhibition on February 21 — in the same place his first exhibition was held 70 years earlier — Rauhauser added his signature to a beam of the Scarab Club, where one will find the names of the artistic greats of Detroit.
He told the crowd, “If I could glow a little bit, you’d know how I feel.”