Hit Between the Eyes: Detroit Photographer Captures the City

By: Toni Cunningham | August 21, 2013

I’d say more often than not, photographers these days carry enough top-of-the-line equipment to rival that of James Nachtwey and Annie Liebovitz combined.

The real question is, is all that extra “stuff”—tripods, backlighting, a lens that zooms into the craters of the moon—really necessary?

Tony Majka, better known as Tony Detroit, thinks not. He takes perhaps the simplest approach to photography yet. Tony has made a name for himself (and gained over 358,000 Instagram followers) by using nothing but a 5-megapixel camera on an iPhone 4.

Having always been interested in photography, Tony got an early start watching his grandfather develop film in the darkroom of his home. Tony spent his early years in Brightmoor, and then moved to Garden City. He attended college at Oakland University, where he studied photography and liberal arts. After college, he began working at Chrysler and moved back to the city of Detroit, where he fell in love with his surroundings all over again.

“My biggest influence in photography has always been Ansel Adams. Upon moving back to Detroit, I started exploring the abandoned buildings. I used my Canon 40D to take pictures. I quickly realized, however, that walking around with such a big camera was neither practical or smart,” Tony said.

To outsiders, the big expensive camera made Tony appear to be a tourist or cop, so he decided to err on the side of caution and began taking photos with only his iPhone.

“Once I did that, I was able to go into harsh areas and become practically invisible,” Tony said. “I started to upload camera filter apps and realized the iPhone was better than any big camera.”

When Tony discovered Instagram and posted his first picture, he was shocked that people took such an interest to “like” and comment on his photographs. Eventually, he was made a “suggested user” of the site, and fans of his photos started joining Instagram solely because of Tony.

“As my (number of) followers grew, I felt the need to get better. I wanted to really show the underbelly of this great city,” Tony said.

And he has certainly done so—photographing everything from dilapidated buildings to graffiti and the interior of run down houses.

“I have always loved the architecture of Detroit. When I was a young child, most kids my age were watching Saturday morning cartoons. Not me. I was watching Saturday morning ‘Creature Feature.’ I have always been drawn to scary looking buildings and settings, which is why my pictures have an eerie quality to them,” Tony said.

In order to capture that eerie quality, Tony says his process is simple. When he goes out to shoot photos, he is always free of expectations or preconceived ideas. While some groups gather to take pictures of Detroit for a day, Tony thinks that’s cheating, because you can’t plan to experience the real Detroit on a time clock—it just happens.

“If I see an image which I feel will display the essence of the city, I shoot it,” Tony said, noting that another reason why he uses only the iPhone is because in those instances, it’s easily accessible and discreet.

Tony is passionate about Detroit and hopes his photography will bring about an understanding of how the city got to where it is today. While some may say Detroit is going downhill, Tony sees his images of the city as nothing but positive.

“Some may disagree. However, we must show the world that Detroit indeed needs love and support. To achieve this message, I can’t show sunsets and shiny, happy people. I hit people between the eyes with realism. However harsh that may be, it still (gets) a reaction from people. That’s what art is,” Tony said.

Tony finds his legion of fans on Instagram and recognition from the citizens of Detroit incredibly rewarding. He’s very gracious to the Instagram community for the good fortune it is has brought his way—he even met his wife, Nathali, and rescued a dog via Instagram.

Currently, Tony is considering taking his photography to print, in the form of a book about Detroit. While he isn’t seeking out a publisher at this time, he promises that if it does happen, it will be the best book about Detroit yet.

“Detroit is special to me because it is relatively untouched as far as its potential,” Tony said. “It is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. It is a hidden country waiting to be explored.”

Tony’s Instagram photos are available for purchase via Instacanvas. Do yourself a favor and check them out. I guarantee you will want to show your love for Detroit by decking out your home, office and any other space that has walls with Tony’s stunning photography.