Steve Shaw, Detroit photographer

It is difficult to focus on one aspect of my friend Steve Shaw's artistic output. He was a founding member of rock group the Detroit Cobras, as well as a graphic designer and photographer of album artwork by seminal Detroit garage punk band the Gories, not to mention a fine art photographer in his own right. His photography is currently part of a group exhibition of Detroit artists in Lille, France, titled "Lille3000 – Renaissance." This fall, more of his images will be included in an exhibition of photographic works at the Detroit Institute of Arts titled "Detroit After Dark." The DIA also recently purchased some of Shaw's photos for its permanent collection.
And on Friday, Jan. 15, Shaw's work will be the subject of a solo show opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, part of the museum's "Detroit Affinities" series and Winter 2016 exhibition. It will include black and white photography from the '80s and early '90s and color digital works taken since 2012.
Many of Shaw's images capture uniquely Detroit scenes, like one of a young boy eating a bag of chips glowers in apparent defiance of a "NO HANGING OUT" warning written above the arched doorway of a run-down flat-iron building on Gratiot and Chene. It's a great image from Detroit's east side. Gratiot on the right stretches to the horizon, a sign above a party store urges you to drink Faygo pop. Shaw captured this image in 1983. His photographs show how much has changed in Detroit in the past 30 years, and how much has stayed the same.

Shaw was born in Detroit and has lived in the city his whole life, growing up on the far west side during the '60s and '70s in a big family that was supportive of artistic expression. When he was 10, his mother gave him a Kodak Instamatic 44 camera for Christmas.
"When she got me the camera, she showed me a drawer in a little cabinet in the living room. And she said if I needed film, go to the drawer and there would be film in there. And when I was done with a roll, put it in the drawer and she would get it processed," says Shaw. "I used that camera for about 10 years. It was stolen from a car in Brooklyn in 1981. It was the end of a road trip me and my brother Jim took where we had gone to Chicago, St. Louis, Bloomington, Nashville, and ended up in New York. I had shot about 10 rolls of film on that trip and the camera was stolen, but not the film. I'm thinking about including a few of those images in the show."
While taking classes at Henry Ford Community College, an instructor, recognizing Shaw's talent, recommended he look into photography courses at the College for Creative Studies (then called the Center for Creative Studies). There Shaw would study with the great Detroit photographer Bill Rauhauser. While in school, Shaw also worked as a parts delivery driver for Woodruff Oldsmobile, a job that would lead him on forays throughout Detroit, fueling his fascination with the city.
"I'd take the parts from the dealers to all these little crummy hole-in-the-wall mechanic shops around the city," Shaw remembers. "I was seeing stuff while I was working that I found really intriguing, before I even got deeper into photography. Things are always being torn down. You'd drive by a corner you saw every day and it would be a vacant lot and you'd wonder, what was on that corner? I wanted to document this, because I saw so many compelling things disappear."
Soon, he was taking his camera to work while driving for St. Vincent De Paul and photographing a rapidly changing city—street scenes, alleys, signs on old buildings and theaters, and people. Shaw said he will view rolls of film he took 30 years ago and remember vividly the images taken from one day in his life. "If I see a roll from 1982, it might be at work, then over to the southwest side, then downtown at a bar with a band, then a Coney Island at three in the morning."
Shooting bands and the music scene in which he was deeply involved was an obvious extension of capturing what he witnessed every day at work. Shaw and his family have always been voracious fans of music, and he grew up going to concerts and later punk shows at clubs like Bookie's, Nunzio's, and City Club. Shaw brought his camera along and would take photographs of friends, strangers, and the bands playing. He still has boxes of negatives he's never printed—a treasure trove for music lovers.
"I remember a time when I was shooting a lot of band stuff, and I started to get the feeling that it all looked the same; a band on stage is a band on stage," he says. "There is some music stuff in the [MOCAD] show, but not a ton. Sometimes I might prefer a photo of a performer or band nobody knows. I did take some great shots of Chuck Berry, but they won't be in the show."
In Shaw's photography, it may take a moment to process some of the finer details included in his images. Words written on walls that aren't the focal point at first, but gathers in depth the more the image sinks in.
"I see things that work off each other, that I think are interesting—things that might be ironic. I am always aware of a lot of peripheral details, lots of times there will be three things happening in front of me and it's just a question of, 'Can I shoot this in time in a decent composition?' Sometimes the scene disappears before you can shoot it. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't."
Shaw began shooting in color with a digital camera in 2012 and kept right up with his old routine of taking his camera around and shooting streets scenes, night life, and travels, too. He's showing work from these travels to other cities in the U.S., something he's been wanting to do for a long time.
"I don't know if I shoot things differently stylistically [when not at home in Detroit], but I definitely think differently," he says. "If I'm shooting things that might remind me of Detroit, that might be enough of a reason, because there is a familiarity. Places like New Orleans or Memphis or Chicago might remind me of Detroit. I've always photographed a lot when traveling, and in this exhibit I'll have the chance to show it."
Shaw would disagree with the notion that Detroit has only recently begun to attract attention around the world. "I felt that people were always interested in Detroit. I remember being with my brother in New York in 1981 and bumping into a guy in the street and taking up a conversation about music, and he was really fascinated about Detroit. At one time the whole East Coast jazz scene was made of hot, heavy Detroit players. So I always felt that people were interested about what was going on in Detroit, and since I was here, I could really get into that, and I did. Detroit's a hell of a story. I feel like I captured good stuff."
Steve Shaw's "Detroit Affinities" solo show opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit on Friday, Jan. 15, from 7-9 p.m. The event is free and open to the public ($5 suggested donation). MOCAD is located at 4454 Woodward Ave. Exhibition details here.
Images courtesy of Steve Shaw. Portrait of the artist by Marvin Nash.
Glen Morren is a musician, writer, and chronicler of Detroit artists.