Tony Majka (@tonydetroit) has long provided us with a unique perspective into the city he loves so dearly. His photography has granted the world of Instagram and beyond a backstage pass to see Detroit in a different light. His work beautifully highlights aspects of the city and its suburbs that may go unnoticed by most but stand prominent in his mind and subsequently become prominent to those of us who follow along. Tony was so very kind to chat with us about what has inspired his desire to represent his city through photography and his creative process. Enjoy!
I'm an Instagram user named Tony Majka, or as you may know me, @TonyDetroit. I've been on Instagram pretty much since the start; way back in the day when there were fewer than a million users. I started Instagram by a mistake, actually. You see, I had just started to take pictures of Detroit with my iPhone. I wanted an app that could add a little HDR to the pictures. I came across Instagram and thought it was a photo editing app. It wasn't too long before I realized that it was much more than that. Before long, I was posting pictures and people actually left comments and "likes." I couldn't believe it! This only motivated me more. The more I went out to capture my hometown, the more my following grew. Shortly after joining Instagram, the Instagram community manager contacted me to become a Suggested User. I was thrilled! To make a long story short, I was a suggested user for a year and a half. At one point, I was the 2nd most followed on all of Instagram. Then the celebrities came. In any case, it was an honor to help Instagram grow into such a huge success.
Outside of Instagram I am a third generation Chrysler worker. Of course I am. It's Detroit! I basically drive cars over a racetrack all day. I am a BSR driver. Meaning, I take cars on a track and listen for buzz, squeaks and rattles. It's a fun job. Can't complain.
I live in Brush Park. It's the oldest part of Detroit. It was the very first zip code in Detroit. 48201. Or the "201" as it is sometimes referred to. Brush Park is known as an artist community. Predominantly painters. Writers, photographers and sculptors also live in the area. So I guess I fit in!
So, when I was growing up in Brightmoor, (known as the worst part of Detroit) my grandfather had a darkroom in his house. I always enjoyed watching him develop pictures. So I was introduced to photography at a very early age.
In college, I took a photography class. I remember we had an assignment to prove that we knew what aperture settings and ISO were all about. Well, I didn't know what the hell that was, so I just went out and took some really cool cemetery shots. After the presentation, the teacher pulled me aside and said, "That was the best presentation I've ever seen! You didn't do ANYTHING the assignment asked, but I won't flunk you!" Haha!
I've always been into darker images. When growing up, kids my age would get up every Saturday morning to watch cartoons. Not me. I would get up and watch Saturday Creature Feature. Two horror movies back to back. I got into George Romero flicks at an early age. To this day, my wife and I make our annual visit to Evans City, PA and the cemetery where Romero shot Night of the Living Dead. I was even in a horror flick they shot in Michigan. I got killed by a six-foot mosquito in the movie, Mosquito. On the set I was able to hang with Gunnar Hanson, the original Leatherface in Texas Cahinsaw Massacre. Later on in life, I was able to meet another hero of mine, Tobe Hooper - director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem's Lot and Poltergeist. I guess my love of horror films comes through in the images I post on Instagram. Even in my living room at home, I have original movie poster from Night of the Living Dead, The Fog, Salem's Lot and Zombie. So I definitely got a big thrill when Steve Yeun started to follow me on Instagram. Steve plays Glenn on The Walking Dead.
So how has your photography developed from those cemetery pictures to now?
From the cemetery to NOW....
I guess I'll always have a dark side to my pictures. It's what I enjoy. And if I didn't enjoy taking pictures, I wouldn't do it. I've tried to expand my horizons with photography. You know, tried breaking away from the dark side. It's just not me. For example, my wife and I recently went on a 20 state tour in 21 days. I thought that maybe I'd start taking "beautiful" shots. Maybe it's just the fact that I live in Detroit that my pictures always seem gloomy. No matter where I was, I seemed to find the desolation and darkness. Whether it was a beach in Florida or a rainbow in Texas. There I was again, making sure I got that double rainbow shot over a desolate Texas back road. Then I made sure to edit it with dark landscape enhancements. So what was once a bright, beautifully lit picture of a rainbow, is now a picture of impending doom. I love it. I even made a picture of a lovely bird on the beach in Florida seem like the end of the world was coming. BAM! I did my job!
The way I see it is that anybody can take a picture of something that's already obviously beautiful. But to me, taking that same picture and turning it into something ominous is art. And yes, beauty is in the eye of the blah, blah, blah... But that's who and what I am. I'm in no way discrediting people who take happy pictures of sunsets and beaches. I'm simply saying that's not me. I have respect for ANYBODY that has a passion in life. Whether it be photography or woodcarving.
In short, I would say that I have evolved dramatically since my early cemetery shots. I don't take myself to the cemetery to get shots anymore. I take the cemetery to the shot. And I enjoy that. I try to make every shot of mine, no matter what that subject matter, look eerie. I get the biggest pleasure when people comment on my pictures on Instagram saying, "this is so scary!" I guess I should blame George Romero. Or rather thank him. If I could sum up my pictures in a few words, it would be desolation and darkness.
On a side note, people often ask me if I've ever been arrested going into the abandoned houses in Detroit. The answer is no. Knock on wood!
And what's the coolest thing I ever found while exploring abandoned houses, you ask?
It would be a functioning Polaroid camera from the 70's. I found it at the now demolished Brewster Projects. I gave it to @ericdefino. He collects that kind of stuff.
Originally, I only shot with an iPhone. I've only started shooting with a camera about 6 months ago. But I'm still old school. I will upload the pictures to the computer and then message them to my iPhone. Then edit them on my phone with Mextures. Old habits. I refuse to get Photoshop or Lightroom. I refuse to pay a monthly fee.
You said you’ve been in detroit all of your life, so what really drives you to capture Detroit in the angles and perspectives that you capture it in?
While capturing an image, I try to do justice to the vision in my head of the subject. That sometimes entails getting low to the ground or looking like a tourist on vacation trying to compose a shot. However, most times the image is finalized through the edit. There is so much that can be accomplished with editing apps such as Mextures. I sometimes spend hours trying to configure the best edit possible in correlation to the vision I had when I took the photograph. I often joke around with my wife, @_nazgul, saying that I'm more of a graphic artist than a photographer. In any case, I'm extremely pleased with the progress of the editing apps out there. We've come a long way from developing film in a darkroom.
More specifically, when capturing images from Detroit, I try to convey the experience of living here. It is a fascinating city that has been recovering from a traumatic downward spiral. The loss of millions of jobs to other countries has left Detroit spinning. People literally grabbed some belongings and left their houses in the middle of the night. There are blocks upon blocks of abandoned houses. Something like 50,000 of them. It's what I see. So I capture them in my photographs. When I take a picture of one of these houses, I try to leave it to people's imagination as to what exactly happened there. I leave open the possibility that this house could be restored to its prior splendor. And many are! That's the good news! I often look through books of Detroit that have the "before" and "after" pictures. Documentarian photographers that have captured the city at different stages in time. I consider myself one of the photographers that is capturing Detroit in the "before" stage. It is my greatest hope that the recovery of Detroit continues. Rebuilding. Expanding businesses. Encouraging people to move back to the city. And, who knows, in a short time I could be one of the photographers documenting the "after." There's a profound difference between Detroit in 2005 and 2015. In 2005, Detroit was almost completely baron. It's made great strides in 10 years. I'm proud to have documented it.
So once you’ve captured a photograph, what does your editing process generally look like?
Here is an original shot from an iPhone 4. I like to run it through Snapseed for some HDR effect. The main editing is through Mextures. For this shot, I used my "Used Books" formula (Formula Code - VRBGXAN) and then I tweaked the formula a bit.
On the subject of formulas, would you care to share a few more with the mextures community?
The Zipper - TYTMJBD Night of the Living Dead - YUNHVAA Wheel in the Sky - YBVXPTW Chainsaw Massacre - RFBQMZH At Dawn They Sleep - RGULZTA The Funhouse - BIXDPHR
Do you feel like Mextures offers anything unique to your editing process?
I feel that Mextures is the most versatile editing tool on the market. It doesn't matter what type of picture you are editing, it's got something for everybody. Perhaps one of the greatest features I like about Mextures is the formula creating and sharing. A photographer can learn a great deal from the formula sharing. It's as if Mextures has created a whole new subculture with this formula sharing. It's very interactive and fun. I feel that Mextures has only just begun to make shockwaves in the photo editing marketplace. It really is in a class all itself.
What are the things that have inspired your photography the most?
I would say the things that have inspired my photography the most are Detroit's never say die attitude and my extreme love of horror stories. Being from Detroit, I am exposed to "real life" struggles of people I encounter and the daily reminder of harsh economic times made obvious by abandoned structures. I find it incredibly fascinating the stories that empty or abandoned houses leave behind. It challenges me to try to capture the image in the correct way. Meaning, the same questions I am left wondering, I try to convey to the person looking at the photograph of the subject I captured. Add to that my love of Edgar Allen Poe stories and George Romero movies and POOF! You have a genuine Detroit-style photograph by me! It doesn't matter where in the world I capture an image, I find I edit it the same way. I try to creep it out the best way I can. It doesn't mean I am disrespecting or making fun of the subject. It's just what I find to be fascinating. Every picture I take, I try to make a horror movie out of it.
How about who has inspired your photography the most?
Growing up, I was never into other photographers. That changed once I was introduced to Instagram. Early on, in the beginning stages of Instagram, I was astounded by @xxxyxyz's work. He was my biggest influence back then.
Then I discovered a photographer from Montreal. She opened up my eyes and taught me how to expand my horizons. To focus on the tiny details. I was amazed. That Instagram user is @_nazgul. We ended up getting married 4 years ago. Thanks Instagram! Another great example of how Instagram tears down barriers. I never in my wildest dreams would've thought I would marry a woman from Montreal. I mean, I've never even been there! Nathalie also turned me on to Mextures!
Another great talent that I enjoy following on Instagram would be @pickledgoose. @jamiebettsphoto is another. I love seeing some @asteryx and @evidence in my feed. @kateessmith, @tonyinseattle, @cole_younger_ and @valsdarkroom. I could go on for days!
All of these photographers are different, yet expand my love of photography tenfold. It's their talent that inspirers me beyond words. I love every single one of them. I urge people to check out every one of their Instagram feeds.
Be sure to check out more of Tony's work on Instagram here!