Behind the Lens: Melissa Farlow Does Detroit

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The art deco interior of the Guardian Building. Photograph by Melissa Farlow

Photographer Melissa Farlow has shot many stories for National Geographic Magazine — covering everything from the swamps of Florida to the wild horses of the West. She’s also been assigned to capture the spirit of both Chicago and Miami for Traveler. So, when the Detroit feature story came up on the schedule, we knew Melissa was the right photographer for the job. One of our photo editors, Krista Rossow, asked Melissa about how she spent her time on the ground in the Motor City.

Krista Rossow: So, when I called to see if you could photograph the Detroit story, did you think Traveler was crazy to want to cover a city that has had such a difficult history?

Melissa Farlow: My first thought was Detroit? Really? And then I thought, well, if the magazine decided to check out Detroit, there must be more to it than all the gloom and doom. I knew the city had very real problems, so my next thought was how I would address that reality because it would be wrong to go there and only take a walk on the sunny side of the street. I anticipated this would be the greatest challenge to the assignment.

One of Melissa’s favorite images from the story. A woman looks out from The Imagination Station to Detroit’s ruined train station. (Photo: Melissa Farlow)

KR: What did you learn about Detroit while out in the field exploring the city and interacting with the people who live and work there?

MF: When I drove into the city, [the first thing I noticed was that] the streets were so wide and there were blocks of vacant lots. Some had a few lone surviving buildings that were boarded up. It had an edgy, urban feel. But after I was given a tour by a couple of local folks and saw some beautiful historic buildings, I was reassured. I found that people were surprisingly friendly and open and wanted to be helpful. I felt welcome.

A woman dances at Cafe D’Mongo’s speakeasy. (Photo: Melissa Farlow)

KR: Can you share with us a few of your favorite discoveries while you were in Detroit?

MF: Architecturally the Guardian Building and the Fisher Building were over-the-top amazing. The Detroit Institute of Arts had an impressive collection. But I was also really, really intrigued with the Heidelberg Project, the outdoor art museum/urban statement. It’s truly unique.

Then I went to places the writer, Andrew Nelson, had suggested, but also found a fabulous pizza place beside the Eastern Market — Supino Pizzeria. They have large, communal tables and lots of wood inside. I had a slice of their amazing harvest pizza that featured winter squash, basil, and goat cheese. Fabulous. I also liked the Cass Cafe. But there were a few places, both speakeasies, that I returned to several times while I was there — Cliff Bell’s and Cafe D’Mongo’s. I’d go to these places if I lived in Detroit.
Girls in polka dots in front of a polka dot house in the Heidelberg Project. (Photo: Melissa Farlow)
KR: How have people reacted to the story since it came out?
MF: I’ve heard from a lot of people — many from Detroit who were happy to see a publication point out a few good things about the city. I’ve also heard from people NOT from Detroit who were just interested. Some plan to visit to check it out for themselves. That will please the Detroit Visitor’s Bureau.
The Detroit skyline as seen from the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. (Photo: Melissa Farlow)
KR: I was very excited to see The Photo Society website when it launched.  It’s a great behind-the-scenes look into the lives of National Geographic Magazine‘s contributing photographers. Can you tell me a bit about it and what the reception has been like for you and the other photogs who are participating?
MF: I think most photographers feel like they are out there alone. We all work independently, and used to feel more support when we came into the office and saw others more. But with cutbacks, and photographers being eliminated from planning meetings, editing, and layout, we all feel more isolated. So The Photo Society has been a great place for photographers to get to know each other and talk about issues we all face. It’s kind of exciting to hear and read things I didn’t know others were doing. It makes me feel like I know them better. We are trying to make it an interesting blog and not just a “dig me” column.
See the photo gallery from Melissa’s Detroit coverage and read the feature story on Traveler’s website. To go even deeper into Melissa’s experience in Detroit, visit her personal blog.
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