The wander years

Jennifer Garza-Cuen

"I was a traveler for a long time," said photographer Jennifer Garza-Cuen.

"I was a traveler for a long time," said photographer Jennifer Garza-Cuen.

Photo/Kris Vagner

Jennifer Garza-Cuen's photo exhibit Imprint of Detroit is on exhibit through Oct. 9 in the Red Mountain Gallery, third floor, Red Mountain Building, Truckee Meadows Community College, 7000 Dandini Blvd. More of her work is online at www.deadpanphotography.com.

Jennifer Garza-Cuen is a wanderer. Sipping tea from a travel tumbler, sporting a black knee-length dress that’d be appropriate for an office, a dance floor or a hiking trail, she looks like she could fit in just about anywhere.

She grew up in Washington and California. She now lives in Reno. In between West Coast stints, she spent time living in different countries.

“I can safely say it was over a decade,” she said, listing destinations. She backpacked in Mexico, settled there for a while, went to college in Cairo, lived for three years in London, and spent summers exploring the Middle East and Provence, the coastal region in France.

By the time Garza-Cuen arrived in Detroit in the winter of 2011-12 with a 4-by-5-inch camera and a travel grant from Rhode Island School of Design, where she was then a grad student, she was looking at the world through the lens of an avowed wanderer. She explained, “I was a traveler for a long time. The way I encountered the world was always somewhat tinged by the fact that I was a foreigner. I was gone for long enough to feel that way even when I came back home.”

She spent three months exploring Detroit. “It was a shining example,” she said. “It was one of our greatest cities. It was the place where capitalism was thriving. It was the Ford Motor Company. It has all of that history and grandeur.” Detroit had buzzed with prosperity until the auto industry’s sharp decline began a long period of struggle. The city’s population in the most recent census (2013) was less than half of the 1.85 million it once had. Many of its buildings have long been abandoned.

To Garza-Cuen, those buildings were perfect locations to photograph. She sought out property owners and requested access. “It’s a small town in the shell of a big city,” she said, so it wasn’t hard to find people. Her traveler’s viewpoint informed her work. She said, “You’re kind of having an incredible trust in the world in a way that I think if you were living a very day-to-day life you simply wouldn’t put yourself in those places.”

She used what she calls a “constructed-documentary style,” deliberately including Detroit’s decay and entropy along with an attention to detail, craft and lighting that expresses her reverence and respect for the places she photographed.

In her interior shots, a ballroom’s plaster walls and elaborate moldings crack and crumble, and a grand piano with a missing leg has crashed into a corner, scattering sheet music. In her outdoor shots, windows are broken, and landscapes are snowy and gray.

“I think I treat probably most of my subjects that way,” she said. She’s used that same “constructed-documentary” style shooting in Vermont and Reno. In each location, she continues exploring the ways place influences identity.

Very few people appear in her photos. (One of them is RN&R Editor Brian Burghart, standing in a tuxedo on a Victorian-era stage that’s scuffed with age.) When they do appear, that loneliness is still there. She clarified, however, “I don’t think [loneliness] is a miserable space.”

“I used to say as a traveler, I could live anywhere for three years,” she said. “I could just discover that place. But after discovery is over, you have to decide if you want to own that place.” Does that mean she’ll staying put in Reno? At the moment, she’s studying creative writing at Sierra Nevada College and teaching photography at Truckee Meadows Community College, but she can already hear the wanderlust calling in the distance.