Tony Detroit: Abandonment Issues
How does one go about getting a hold of someone on Instagram? More specifically, how do you get a hold of a guy that has almost 60,000 followers? It’s not like you can just send them a direct message. Recently, I was approached with an idea to do an interview with one of my idols on Instagram, Tonydetroit. I was a little overwhelmed at the idea, but I figured it’d be fun. But, how would I get a hold of him? I knew if I just left a comment on one of his pictures, he’d never see it. But I figured, what the hey, might as well. So I left a comment on one of his pictures stating that I wanted to get a hold of him, and left him my email address to email me personally. I didn’t hear back from him, so I assumed my comment was just lost in the mix. However, low and behold, one morning I woke up and read through the comments of my most recently posted picture, and there was Tony leaving me a comment with his telephone number attached saying to give him a call. I was a little stunned, but I quickly jotted down his number, and deleted the comment to make sure he didn’t get any prank calls. I didn’t know what to expect once I called him. Who would? I didn’t know much about him at all. Only the limited amounts of information he leaves us on his Instagram feed. So I figured I better put together a fair amount of questions to ask him. And make sure that they were good ones too! Although, once I was on the phone with him, all of my questions went out the window.
Feeling a bit nervous once on the phone, I told him how much of an influence he has had on me in my work. I shared how I never even knew that I liked pictures of abandonment until I came across his feed on Instagram. I told him that because of his pictures, I’ve proposed to my wife jokingly (not jokingly), about how I want to take a vacation to Detroit so I can take pictures there too. Tony laughed with a good hearty laugh and told me that I’d be more than welcome to come. My immediate impression of Tony was what I was hoping it would be. Tony is a very nice, laid-back and funny person. I was hoping to rattle through all of my well thought-out questions in the interview. Instead it just turned into an hour and a half long conversation of just two guys sharing stories. I learned all about how Tony is currently trying to get a low-budget dark comedy movie made in the next year. He recently made a trip out to California just to visit a studio where one of his favorite zombie movies was filmed. He’s a huge zombie movie fan. Which in turn, is kind of one of the reasons he loves Detroit so much, because he lives in what he calls, “a zombie movie everyday.” And although he has shared with us a dark depiction of Detroit through his pictures, he clearly loves it there. He says that the people are what make Detroit so amazing. And if they are anything like Tony, I’m sure that’s true. We spent a lot of time just talking about Detroit. He could easily work for a travel agency, selling you on why you should come and visit. He shared with me stories of his encounters with celebrities in Detroit. He told me about the time he came across Eminem, and how Eminem did not live up to his “hard” reputation. He shared with me about the minor part he played in a movie, acting alongside of Alicia Silverstone in the yet to be released movie, “Vamps.” Tony was very charismatic in our conversation, he was a complete delight to talk to. And as you’ll see in this interview, there was hardly a dull moment.
R = Ryan Coleman T = Tonydetroit
R: You tend to shoot the areas of Detroit that have suffered the most during these tough economic times. What is it that you draws you to these areas of abandonment?
T: The reason why I’ve been going out and trying to get a lot of pictures of these abandoned houses from the 1800′s and the early 1900′s is, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Mike Ilitch, he owns the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers. Now what this guy has been doing is buying up a lot of properties because he wants to build a new hockey arena in Brush Park, which is where I live. I live in a loft about two blocks from Comerica Park, where the Tigers play. So anyway, these old houses which are prevalent in Brush Park have been you know, they’ve been kind of knocking them down and Mike Ilitch has been buying up the property because he wants to build the new arena here. So I’m like, ‘Wow, these houses and old castles won’t be here for too much longer. So I’ve been trying to get out and get as many pictures of it as I can before they’re all gone.’
R: Oh wow, I had no idea.
T: Yeah, so that’s part of the motivation of me going out. Primarily the Cass Corridor and Brush Park. Brush Park is actually the oldest part of Detroit. It’s actually the very first zip code in all of Detroit. That’s Brush Park, where I live. It’s an artist’s community. There’s painters and writers that pretty much congregate and live in Brush Park. Sure, it’s run down, and I can step out on to my balcony and look and see 10 abandoned houses, bums, crackheads, prostitutes; but there are a few big buildings, like loft complexes where all the artists gather, and it’s pretty safe. You just don’t really want to walk at night to be honest, you know? [laughs]
R: So I want people to know you. The real you. Walk me through a typical day in the life of Tonydetroit…
T: My life has dramatically changed for the better over the last, I would say since like May. I actually met my, I’m married, I got married like 3 months ago to a girl I met on Instagram. She’s from Montreal, @_nazgul, Nathali. She came here and we hit it off instantly. She never left… [laughs] Thank God! She’s amazing and she’s just as into photography as I am. So what we do is, I work until about, I get up really early in the morning. I get up at 4 am to go to work. I get home, the good thing is I get home pretty early, around 3 o’clock pm. I generally come home, hang out with the wife, and before you know it one of us is like, ‘Hey, let’s go out and look at those clouds!’ [laughs] Because we have a joke, Nathali & I, when there’s sick clouds in the sky we look at each other and say, ‘Ooo, dynamic light!’ Which is always the first app I run my pictures through is Dynamic Light. That is the must-have app. Definitely Dynamic Light. So it doesn’t matter if it’s raining, snowing, or anything. We either go on our bikes or hop in the car and we’ll just go. It’s so funny, we’ll be out together and we’ll see a shot and [one of us] will be like, ‘I got dibs!’ or ‘That’s mine!’ That way she can’t steal my shot. [laughs] I can’t tell you how many times we’ve almost gotten into accidents just slamming on the brakes to get a shot. I like Fall or Winter better for photography in Detroit because of the gloominess and the dead trees and… I’m sorry, I’m getting carried away on Detroit again. But a typical day… I’m straying, I apologize. [laughs] Yeah, I just go to work, I’ve been at Chrysler for like 17 years. It gets pretty boring, so I’m glad Nathali and I have this creative outlet of taking pictures. I would say that I go out at least 3 to 4 days a week just to get new shots. You know, I would love to get more people pictures. But, in Detroit it truly is like the movie, ‘I am Legend.’ Nathali is from Montreal, so she was in shock. She was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s Saturday night and there’s no one out on the streets. In Montreal, there’d be like an hour’s [worth of] traffic.’ There is very little to do in Detroit. So like I said, it’s either photography, talking to my friends about producing or making this movie. Sorry, there isn’t really much to tell. I just work and I come home. I’m still waiting for that one masterpiece where I get the cops with their guns drawn at some crackhead. You know? [laughs] That to me, would be the masterpiece. I do try to paint Detroit in a very good light even though it is the poorest big city in America. It’s still torn apart from the ’69 riots, there’s still this decay and it’s not getting any better. It’s a hell of a place to photograph though! I’m pretty much the family guy. I work, come home and thank God I married someone who has the love of photography so she doesn’t complain when I’m like, “Hey, let’s go take some shots.” One thing that scares me, I get redundant and I shoot the same ole’ stuff. I do try to capture the perfect image, but a lot of times, it doesn’t happen. So I experiment a lot with apps. My very first step, without fail, 100% is Dynamic Light. I use that first and then I go right over to Qbro, which is a hell of an app. Then Cameramatic, I got that from one from (on Instagram) xxxyxyz. I don’t know if you know him?
R: Yeah, I actually found that app from him too.
T: So it depends if I get the look I want from Camermatic, [because] then I’ll go to PicGrunger. I would honestly say there’s only two apps that I’ve been using for the past month. Always, Dynamic Light and then Qbro, and that’s it.
R: I thought that it was Dynamic Light you were using, I just was never completely sure…
T: Oh wait, I’ve got to interrupt you before I forget this. I’m sorry. I got a funny-ass story for you! This is some funny shit! In the beginning of [this past] summer, Nathali and I were riding our bikes and I was chasing this one cloud and it was moving quick. And I was like, “Oh my God, I gotta get it right over this abandoned building.” So I’m hauling ass, just hauling ass, ok? And I go to stop, but I applied the front brake instead of the back brake, so I flew over my bike and my iPhone just crashed on the ground. And I never had a case for it or anything. So the back of the glass was all shattered. But it still worked! Even the glass over the camera lens was all scratched. Ever since then if you look close in a lot of my pictures it’s always a little bit more blurry on the top right. And that’s because of the scratch on my camera! [laughs] And I’m too cheap to go get a new one. Because I’m like, ‘Eeh… Screw it. It’ll be like a trademark or whatever.’ So I still have just a straight iPhone 4, and it’s broken and it’s on it’s last leg. My [iPhone's] memory will only let me save 400 pictures on my phone. I had like 3,000 and I lost them all! It keeps rebooting the library and I lose more and more and more. I had pictures of like me and Juliette Lewis, Demi Moore, William H. Macy, and I lost them all. Except for, I think I may still have the William H. Macy one. In fact, Nathali and I were just at the mall a couple days ago and we were looking at the Apple store. I was like, “Sure, I could get the 4S. But I like my shit phone!” [laughs] It makes me feel good that I can still take decent shots with a shit phone.
R: That’s crazy! Well, you’ll have to hold on to that. Maybe it could be a collector’s item one day and you could sell it as “The iPhone With the Trademark of Tonydetroit!”
T: Yeah, I had to tell you that one. I think the only person that knows about that was Nathali.
R: That’s great man! That’s a really great story.
T: Let me tell you something. During my romps through the Cass Corridor, this is before Nathali came here. I would go out and take pictures, you know, this and that and I got to know a lot of the people. First of all, let me make a statement, I’ve never at any point in my life done drugs at all. I just want to say that. Because people might assume that because I take pictures of prostitutes [that I do drugs]. I don’t know if you’ve seen how I went into a crack house taking pictures of crackheads.
R: Yeah! I remember those pictures. I know what you’re talking about. It was during your Cass Corridor period. I was checking your feed a lot during that time.
T: Yeah, thanks man! During this time I got to know a lot of the prostitutes and drug dealers. When I first started off, the very beginning… Let me just say this, ever since I started on Instagram it was just my iPhone. But before that, I tried to experiment with my Canon 40D. So I would go around with the Canon, which is a pretty big camera, and I’d try to take pictures, and it attracted too much attention. Because there’s a couple corners in Detroit where you don’t want to take pictures because that’s where all the drug deals go down. And I’m like, I kind of feel unsafe with this big-ass Canon. So I got rid of it and sold it. And I just started using my iPhone because it’s more inconspicuous, where you can kind of hide your shot. That was when I learned, and started going into the crack houses and the prostitute corners and taking pictures. It’s pretty funny, if you look back in my feed I had a lot more abandoned houses. There was this point where I was in an abandoned house up on the third floor and I fell through the flooring because it was all decayed. Luckily, I grabbed onto a 2×4 that was sticking out from the wall to prevent myself from falling all the way down. That kind of scared me off from going inside the abandoned houses.
R: I remember you saying quite a few months back on your feed, that you had achieved “street cred.” That you were allowed to go into places and take pictures that maybe I wouldn’t be allowed to go into if I were in Detroit. What is the story there?
T: Ok, yeah, there’s the street called Cass. Which is the corridor that leads you through to Detroit and into the surrounding communities. But in the heart of Detroit, it’s called the “Cass Corridor.” There’s a corner, Temple and Cass. And that’s the corner that at any given point in the day, there are 7-10 drug dealers standing there and cars pull up and they do the deal. During this time that I was taking pictures, there was this one prostitute. She kind of knew that I was different and she saw that I was taking pictures. She didn’t proposition me or anything like that, but she was pretty cool. So she was like, ‘Oh, you take pictures.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I post these shots to this thing called Instagram.’ So she said, ‘That’s interesting! Well, here let me show you a couple of these houses. You know, the big entrances and give you the history of it.’ So that was pretty interesting. Then one day I was just walking around and she was there and she asked for like 5 dollars because you know, she’s like a crack addict. So I gave her 5 dollars. She was like, ‘Come with me to this crack house.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t do that.’ But she was like, ‘No, maybe you can sneak in a picture.’ So I gave her the 5 bucks and we went into this crack house. She was talking to the guy and introduced me. She said, ‘Hey, he’s cool. He’s with me.’ As it turns out, her brother is one of the biggest gang-bangers in the city. So they all respect her brother, which in turn, they respect her or anyone she brings around. So I was there and that’s when I had that picture on Instagram where she was lighting up, and I think the guy was lighting up, and the guy in the back was lighting up too. They didn’t know I took the picture. But they knew I was a photographer and they let me at least stay there. They let me take pictures of the outside. But if they knew I took that shot, thank God they don’t have any iPhones. [laughs] Or at least not on Instagram or there’d be a hit out on me! [laughs]
*Tony went on to tell me more about her brother, including names and details. He did tell me that anytime he has found himself in a jam, which was only once, all he needs to do is mention the brother’s name and people will leave him alone. For his safety, I thought it best to leave the details of that part of the story out. I did ask him though if there has been a time where he has feared for his life while shooting. Through Tony’s feed, I already knew he had an AK-47. So I asked if he has felt the need to try to bring any other guns he might own while he is out taking pictures. He said that he hadn’t, and that there has only been one time he has grabbed for his AK-47.*
T: …About 6, 7 months ago right outside my loft, there were a couple of incidents where there was a gun fight and I’d call 911. And the lady at 911 said, “We’re not going to send a unit until they’re gone.”
R: Are you serious?!
T: I’m telling you verbatim what they said. I said, “There’s a gun fight going on right now. [There's] return fire, they’re standing there shooting at each other. We need units right away.” And she goes, “Could you stay on the line and let us know when they’re done? And then we’ll send a unit.” I’m like, “Are you serious?!” She said, “Well, I’m sorry.” So I say, “Well, I have an AK-47 and if the bullets come up my way, I’m gonna come out shooting.” She just said, “Sir, do what you have to do.” That’s what she said. I’ll never forget it. That was the only time that I felt scared. And I’ve been living in [downtown] Detroit [for] 5 years.
R: I’m assuming music plays a big part of your life due to some of the lyrical captions you leave on your photos sometimes. So if someone who has never heard of Tonydetroit were to cruise through your portfolio tonight, what soundtrack would you recommend to accompany them on their journey into your world?
T: That’s a great question, man. [pauses] I’ve been listening to Radiohead a lot. Radiohead’s, “Everything in its Right Place.” Bauhaus, I like Bauhaus a lot. There’s this song called “Third Uncle” by Bauhaus. You know, I’ll be honest with you, I grew up on punk music like The Misfits & Sex Pistols. And I don’t know if it makes me a pussy or not, but I like Coldplay a lot. [laughs] I know, I know, and maybe you shouldn’t put that [in the interview]. But I do like Coldplay and a lot of their songs. And when I’m driving through like 7 mile (a very rough area of Detroit), I’m like, “Damn man…” But I would have to say, Radiohead. Well now, hold on, that’s a good question. I want to give a good answer.
R: Well, as long as you don’t say Nickelback, I’m sure we’ll be good.
R: Ok, so if I were ever to convince my wife to let us take a vacation to Detroit, and you & I met up for drinks; I’m buying, what are you drinking?
T: Dude, that’s a no brainer. That’s Jameson. Two shots of Jameson, and two Red Stripes. That’s what I do. Red Stripe and whiskey.
R: Done. Let’s do this.
For your viewing pleasure, 3 of the 4 pictures used for this piece have never been posted on Tony’s Instagram feed before. Tony was generous enough to let us use them.
About Ryan Coleman
I was named after a soap opera star of the 80’s… Apparently my Mom had high expectations.