Three-hundred and 65 photos, and the only one Wayne State Press – the publisher of John Sobczak’s “A Motor City Year,” a snapshot look-see into Detroit life – had quibbles over was the Motor City Pride one.
The picture, of performance artist Krystine on stilts towering over festival-goers, isn’t gay in the in-your-face way. In fact, if you didn’t read the caption, you might not know what you were looking at besides a really tall, Victorian-dressed woman and the crowd surrounding her.
“One thing I’m big on is showing people as you prefer yourself to be shown,” says Sobczak, a longtime photographer who’s shot for USA Today, Time and Newsweek and lives with his wife in Bloomfield Township.
Wayne State Press granted Sobczak full creative freedom over his book – a vibrant celebration of the Motor City through the seasons, from spring to winter. But, as Sobczak submitted his pieces monthly to them for their feedback, they weren’t sold on the Pride picture; they would’ve liked to see a couple holding hands. Something more … gay.
He took umpteen photos, but he was concerned when it came time to select the right one for the book. Was he safe about his choice? Maybe. Was he trying to avoid stereotypes? Cliches? Yes, and yes. It really came down to this: He didn’t want the photo to speak for the entire gay community, because he realizes we’re all different – even if we do get lumped together.
“If you look at the people around her, you get some of the story as well,” he says, defending the picture.
For the book, Sobczak also shot a drag queen at the Rainbow Room in Detroit, the Detroit Derby Girls, the AIDS Memorial Quilt at Wayne State University and a couple lesbian performers – Flint-native and comedian Sandra Bernhard, host of the 2008 Fringe Festival, and folk musician Patty Larkin at The Ark in Ann Arbor.
“It was an amazing amount of work,” he says, noting that his wife told him he was spending four hours a day, every day, for an entire year on the project – all the while working a day job and being a family man. “I thought I’d shot everything in the city twice. I thought I knew everything about the city.”
Turns out, he didn’t. He learned that every year on Good Friday the youth group at St. Gabriel’s Church enacts the Stations of the Cross during the Passion Play on the streets of Mexican Town. And that metro Detroit has an extensive Chinese community, which he photographed at the Chinese Center of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“It was really important to me to try and get a shot from all the different communities, all the different religions, all different activities, because I just think there’s such a diversity of people in this community,” Sobczak says. “I wanted to showcase them all. Obviously you can’t do that without the gay and lesbian community.”
But he never wanted to suck up to the city too much. Though the book definitely gives the impression that Detroit’s reputation is undeservedly harsh (many pictures will elicit smiles or guffaws, like one of a dressed-up couple dining at a Canton White Castle for Valentine’s Day), he also incorporates the grim and gritty. There’s one shot of Detroit Police arresting a suspect, and another of a Clean Detroit worker picking up trash.
“I wanted to show how cool the city was, I definitely wanted to do that. But I didn’t want to do a fluff book,” he says. “I have a studio downtown on purpose, because I love the diversity. I love the energy. I take the good with the bad. That’s why you live in a city.”