Through Detroit’s ups and downs, Lisa Spindler has been there to capture the city and its people.
By Karen Dybis
Photos courtesy Lisa Spindler Studio
One of photographer Lisa Spindler’s most treasured items is not her artistic awards or copies of her magazine cover art. It is a worn, wooded shoeshine box, which still contains the brushes, polish and tools of its original owner.
Spindler keeps this rough, handmade box in her downtown Detroit Woodward Avenue studio alongside her soaring photographs of Detroit, haunting portraits of a woman’s heavily made-up eyes and landscapes featuring the gray-green shades of spent corn stalks, an image she captured as she drove through the Michigan countryside.
The shoeshine box made her a collector, particularly of Detroit historical objects, the same as when taking her father’s camera into her hands for the first time made her a photographer. Over the past four decades, her intense talent has grown through instruction and research. But her interest in other people and intuition for a great profile or an unforgettable object has never changed.
“There’s even a tub of Shinola polish (in) there. It was powerful to me — who was the man who made this? Who used it? I knew I had to preserve it. To me, this is Detroit,” Spindler says, standing beside her overflowing desk, surrounded by her portraits and shelves full of priceless collectibles.
As the city evolves, Spindler finds herself in flux right alongside it. She has changed studios multiple times, adapted to new technology, brought in artists to work alongside her and ventured out into the neighborhoods to see another viewpoint.
You can see it everywhere in her studio. There are the hat molds from a Detroit bridal shop, which Spindler purchased from the owner herself before the millinery and dress store closed. There’s the custom half-circular high-back mohair couch Spindler scored at an Indian Village estate sale; rumor has it that singer and actress Eartha Kitt once entertained on it. Another treasure is the sprawling leather-topped Warren Platner conference table, said to be from a General Motors executive’s office. The leather is worn, as if a hundred contracts were signed on that spot.
“Everything works together,” Spindler says, wrapped up in the warmth of her city’s history.
Fans of her work have noticed the shift. Genevieve Dwaihy Tusa, a Grosse Pointe-area attorney, has two pieces from Spindler that are opposites. One is a portrait from her earlier work, and the second is a more contemporary piece incorporating some of her experimental Detroit images.
“The two images I chose are perfect examples of Lisa’s incredible artistic range: her ability to capture a similar feeling of grace from a beautiful and partially dressed woman and an old rusted transport rack from Detroit’s automotive history,” Tusa says.
Born in Detroit, Spindler has worked in the city for decades. Securing a spot with other creatives that had huge windows, open spaces and a place to develop her film was always the priority. If it had running water, that was a bonus.
Those years molded her sense of people and of moments. Spindler’s photographs from the early years were largely done in house with the right light and the perfect setting. This is the work that attracted national magazines, advertising opportunities and big-name clients.
Over the past few years, Spindler has had to move as Detroit built up around her. She moved to the city, then the country. Her finances rose and fell and rose again. With her camera always in hand, Spindler packed up her boxes when an opportunity arose for her to have a light-filled studio space on Woodward Avenue.
Instead of bringing people into her studio, Spindler started to see more of the world around her. That stunning shot of a woman’s eyes? That was a young woman pumping gasoline alongside Spindler at a random Detroit gas station. Entranced by the woman’s naïve beauty, Spindler asked to take her photo. The woman complied, and her heavily lashed eyes now stare directly into the viewer.
The Woodward space also forced her to grapple with new Detroit. With her street-level door and intriguing artwork at eye level, people regularly knock on the glass doors and ask to come in. Spindler, ever affable, lets them in. The result is rarified meetings, like when London-based singer and producer James Blake popped in and bought a piece. Another was with “Band of Gold” singer and jazz legend Freda Payne, one of Spindler’s favorites.
“This is not a gallery; it is my working studio. I don’t do monthly shows. Our doors aren’t open to the public because we don’t have a staff. But people are coming here because they’re interested in the work,” Spindler says.
Spindler likely will have to find another studio soon, but the memories and the lessons of this location will linger. Spindler, 57, is more spontaneous than ever.
No matter where she moves or what she is photographing, that part of Spindler that is open and curious will go alongside her.
“I’m living in the moment,” Spindler says.