Taking a Chance on Photography


As a student and Cass Corridor resident in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bruce Harkness wandered the area with his camera. He met people. He befriended them. He took their portraits.

Later he had more official jobs, but he always returned to Detroit’s neighborhoods hoping to better know their people and tell their stories in his photos. He never sold his prints and hardly ever displayed them publicly.

Beginning Saturday and until March 18, the Oloman Café, 10215 Joseph Campau St., in Hamtramck will exhibit Harkness’s work.  It’s a rare chance to see a side of Detroit, Dearborn and Hamtramck through the years as recorded by Harkness in his photography. 

An opening reception is planned from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday.

Bruce Harkness

Click to hear Harkness discuss the people he’s photographed and what they meant to him.

I met a lot of wonderful people. Ordinary people. Like me,” he said in an interview last year. “But I got to know them and their lives are fascinating. Just the things that have happened to them in their lives and the things, their homes are interesting, valuable, and it, those people, they’re still with me. That is sort of, they sort of make you the person that you are. If you’re afraid of everything and you won’t take a chance, then there’s something you’re missing.”

Harkness, who would later be the city of Dearborn photographer, also shot in the Poletown neighborhood throughout 1981 as its houses fell to bulldozers and wrecking balls and the area became an auto plant. His work in the community along Mount Elliot near I-94 became the Urban Interiors Project, a collection of oral histories of city residents. He also photographed musicians and burlesque performers in Detroit bars and clubs. 

Prints from all of those projects will be on display at the Oloman.

Click to hear Harkness reflect on his career.

I have documented significant things in this city and it’s not the glamorous stuff. I often go for ordinary. I like ordinary, even in prints. I would rather have somebody look at one of my photographs and say, ‘What the hell did he photograph that for?’ than say ‘WOW!’ I’m a little suspicious of that,” Harkness says. “I like sort of understated, quiet things that people might not pay a lot of attention to.”

Harkness donated many of his Poletown photos to the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. Here is the guide to that collection.

Image credit: Bruce Harkness

Aired on: CultureShift
About the Author

Sandra Svoboda

Special Assignments Manager

Recovering Bankruptcy Reporter/Blogger looking forward to chronicling regional revitalization on-air, digitally and through community engagement.

ssvoboda@wdet.org   Follow @WDETSandra

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