Detroit Through A New Lens

Out DIFFA Photographer Sees The Big Picture

By Christopher J. Treacy

Celebrated fashion photographer Boswell Hardwick has always been a few steps ahead of the game. His understanding of aesthetics, the fashion press and his experience in multiple creative mediums has given him the necessary edge to become successful in a notoriously difficult and fickle industry.

And he's one of Detroit's own. In the early 1980s, he began shooting images of urban decay - "ruin porn" - throughout the city, well before the hipsters who are celebrating it now were even born. At the time, he was using the photos as references for paintings. Now, in September, he'll score his fourth cover photo for StyleLine.

"It's always been a fascination," he says of the city's much-ballyhooed abandoned buildings. "But it's almost like a joke here now. People just roll their eyes, because the focus in Detroit is on a much bigger picture. Still, it's important to look back in order to see forward."

Indeed, Hardwick's ability to see the big picture is a large part of what propels him forward in his career, but his love of Detroit continues regardless of having achieved some success. His participation in the annual DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS) fundraiser - this year, from Sept. 18-20 - is just one way he shows it. This year, in addition to donating a Giclee print (of the iconic and mysterious Michele Lamy, wife of designer Rick Owens), he'll also photograph the Dining by Design installations which serve as the centerpiece for DIFFA's Motor City partnership with the Michigan AIDS Coalition.

"Even though I haven't seen this year's installations yet, I do have the knowledge of how beautiful and interesting they've been in the past. I'm excited to be photographing them. Next year, I plan to do my own installation. DIFFA always puts on a really special three-day event, and I hope people will come out and support the cause."

The other forces egging him on are a combined thirst for knowledge and a healthy level of creative dissatisfaction.

"I'm never happy with the status quo," he says. "But I'm also inspired by everything I see in my daily life. My saving grace is a need to continuously experiment, to push the envelope and keep learning. The more I learn, the better suited I am to continue doing this until I'm dead."

Curiously, for someone so impassioned by their perceived calling, Hardwick - who has successfully branded his studio work by using just his first name - only became serious about his photography eight years ago. Prior to that, he'd dabbled in fashion design, amongst other things. After seeing a hat worn in a photograph of rapper LL Cool J, he took his lifelong sewing skills to task and used the hat in the photo as a model for his own creation. Then he wore the resulting piece to a Deee-Lite concert, where it received quite a bit of positive attention.

From there, he started making hats on a regular basis. His designs caught on, eventually landing in the pages of Mirabelle. Katie Couric even donned one of his eye-catching chapeaus in the Macy's Day Parade. But popularity doesn't always translate to dollars and cents, and Hardwick's homemade hat enterprise became an unsustainable business model, thus forcing him to walk away. But maybe not forever... he says his plan is to make hats again, this time around with the intent of using them in photographs which he'll then compile into a coffee table book. One pursuit informs another.

His stint as the fashion editor for Hour Detroit Magazine goes a long way toward his understanding of publishing and the editorial process therein. He's most in his element behind the lens when also afforded the freedom of being the art director on his own shoot. It's about control - but in a quality sense, not necessarily an egomaniacal one.

"Before I go into a shoot, I do research, I create storyboards, go over the details for hair and makeup," Boswell says. "Ideally, I select the models and the beauty team, so I'm very rarely going in blind. I try to produce the most beautiful looking people, the most beautiful set and most beautiful lighting that I possibly can. The publication is always waiting to see what you're going to deliver, and I strive for a certain level of elegance."

The elegance he speaks of comes through clearly in his work - there's a tidiness to his presentation that smacks of a near-neurotic perfectionist's vision... not necessarily a bad thing in his field. Actually, his work has the distinct feel of classic fashion photography, rendered by the very sort of sharp creative eye that high-end magazines come to trust.

That said, as an out gay man, he's uncertain as to whether his sexuality is apparent in his work. It's something he's content to let the viewer decide, should they even care.

"I've been told I take really beautiful portraits of men," he says. "And to aesthetics in general, there is some conceptual notion that gay men have superior tastes. I'm not entirely sure that's true, although I'm proud to be me and am happy to be gay. Maybe I do put more of a loving lens on my male photos, but it's very difficult for me to evaluate things like that. I trust my instincts, but I also have to learn to trust what people tell me they see in my photos, to some extent."

Hardwick travels to Paris for work-related endeavors up to three times annually. He readily admits that it can be an intimidating atmosphere, but insists on holding his head high and carrying himself with confidence. After all, he cut his teeth in Detroit - a tough crowd by American standards. Surprisingly, he says that a number of people he's met in Paris, whether during Fashion Week or otherwise, have Detroit on their cultural radar.

Given Paris' reputation, it's the ultimate compliment to know people speak highly of Detroit while visiting such a highly coveted space.

"I'm a huge supporter of this place. My feelings about the city are incredible, and there's an amazing amount of talent here. I'm very proud to be here at this point in my career, and at this point in Detroit's history."

For more information on DIFFA and this year's event, visit http://michiganaidscoalition.org.
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