Blog: Inspiration Between the Lines

Q&A with Photographer and Educator Isaac Diggs

The work of Isaac Diggs spans the professional documentation of architecture for a variety of clients, a personal photographic practice that includes three photobooks and counting, and work as a photography educator at institutions including Bard College and the School of Visual Arts. Across all formats, Diggs' dedication to the investigation of the everyday through landscape, the urban environment and social context is constant. To date he has published books on Harlem, New York; Lagos, Nigeria; and, Los Angeles, California. We reached out to Diggs to discuss the collaborative process and his current work-in-progress, the photobook, Electronic Landscapes: Music, Space and Resistance in Detroit.

Kenny Dixon, Jr., Distribution Facility, 2017


What was the genesis of your current photobook project, a work-in-progress, Electronic Landscapes: Music, Space and Resistance in Detroit? Why the Detroit electronic music scene? 

Electronic Landscapes (EL) grew out of discovering artists like Theo Parrish and Mike Banks in the early 2000s. They were both featured on BBC radio by Benji B, who also did a really important tribute show for J Dilla when he passed. That opened up the floodgates and also hipped me to Detroit as the common denominator linking these figures. Only a few years later, I attended my first Movement Festival and resolved to investigate the connection between Detroit and this black music I couldn’t get enough of, techno, along with its siblings: house and hip hop. On that trip, I met some wonderful people - John Collins and Jason Hill - who committed to introducing Edward and myself to key artists in the scene. 

Stacey "Hotwaxx" Hale in Livingroom Studio, 2015


This is your second collaborative photobook project with Edward Hillel. You first worked together on 125th: Time in Harlem–what brought you back together? What are some of the nuances of working as part of a team on a photobook project? 

125th: Time in Harlem is largely elegiac in tone; Edward and I observed a change that we felt powerless to halt but knew would be incredibly important to document. In Detroit, we had an opportunity to explore similar themes dealing with landscape, history and culture through profiling artists who in their own development activities were fighting to preserve community in real time against forces of gentrification and land speculation. They were at the table with local government, developers and business leaders, but also (and perhaps more importantly) working independently to make sure they have a stake in Detroit’s future. Edward and I may have first been attracted to these artists because of the music, but their DIY ethos has also been deeply affecting. 

Amp Fiddler Basement Studio, 2018


Considering both projects, tell us about your process of making and selecting images? How long does it take to compile photographs for your books? Do you edit once you have a critical mass of images or is it an ongoing process? At what point does sequencing come into play? 

Due to our collaboration and the themes we pursue, our projects take years to complete. I would describe our process as iterative and elliptical: with repeated visits to the location, we hone our true concerns thematically. (This is also the way I work in my individual practice). Having to coordinate our schedules and the resources to support both of us working away from home several days at a time, over several years, challenged our process and forced us to re-think what collaboration means for EL. We also could not have completed this project without Detroit stakeholders like John and Jason (mentioned earlier, and others like Ryan Robertson) who introduced us to the scene in Detroit and helped us form key relationships. 

So, with all of this, making the photographs was the simplest part. Once given access, we just had fun and stayed present to what was in front of us. 

Editing those photographs is an ongoing process. Key images are identified, and we analyze them very carefully to identify thematic possibilities that are in or just outside the frame. These lead to new pictures on subsequent trips with constant re-evaluation. Once Edward and I feel we “know” what we’re after, the project is usually near completion (at least photographically) and we can begin to consider sequencing options. 

Waajeed, Bedroom Studio, Submerge, 2014


In regard to Electronic Landscapes: Music, Space and Resistance in Detroit, have there been any surprises or revelations along the way? In lieu of the George Floyd protests and calls for social change at a structural level, how do you think the project fits into the changing landscape of the United States–and the world–right now? 

Over the course of making EL, a provocative billboard was erected in downtown Detroit that read, “There are black people in the future.” (The billboard is by the artist Alisha B. Wormsley and premiered in Pittsburgh.) It made me think, “Well, yeah, but in what context?” 

Although it’s clear we aren’t going back to Africa as was debated at the turn of the 20th century, some are fine with us populating prisons or remaining on the margins economically, politically and socially as our cities are “reimagined.” Many of the artists profiled in EL are taking practical steps to work toward a future in which they control space and preserve community - both creative and physical - and this is key. I do not mean to suggest that home ownership, for example, would have prevented George Floyd’s death, but I do believe there is a deep connection between the erasure of countless black neighborhoods in the US, like Black Bottom in Detroit, and the current crisis we are protesting. If we control space and are at the forefront of development activity in our communities, we will have a greater say in education, health outcomes and policing. Detroit artists are on the front line in terms of thinking through these things, and they’ve been there for awhile. I started this project as a fanboy who wanted to get inside a few studios, but end inspired by the way these artists are impacting their communities. As a country, we need to have a reparations conversation that finally secures for us that proverbial 40 acres and a mule. 

Listen to a live stream with John Collins and other current Detroit techno djs that's a great "sampler" of the music.  John is a member of Underground Resistance, a techno collective founded by Mike Banks (also featured in the EL project) and Jeff Mills:

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