Paige Pfleger: 95-year-old photographer captures Detroit through the ages

By Paige Pfleger, Daily Detroit Arts Columnist
Published February 9, 2014

Bill Rauhauser was 15 years old when he bought his first camera for 49 cents — saved from his earnings from working at a small grocery store in Detroit, in the 1930s. Little did he know at the time, he would continue taking photos for the next 80 years, his craft evolving from a hobby to a gratifying and successful career that is archived through film.

Rauhauser’s story begins in 1918 in the heart of Detroit. He attended Cooley High School on the northwest side of the city, then earned his bachelor’s in architectural engineering from University of Detroit. He worked in that field for about 15 years while pursuing photography on the side.

In 1947, Rauhauser went on a business trip to New York City and visited the Museum of Modern Art. He was particularly struck by an exhibit of photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson, and purchased a book about the photographer that included the quote: “Photography isn’t a hobby. It is the art of seeing.”

At the time, photography wasn’t a popular art form, but Rauhauser managed to connect with other photographers through camera clubs. It was there that he met the chair of the photography department at College for Creative Studies, and was offered a job teaching the history of photography as a night class.

“I knew right then and there that I needed to quit my job and I went to teach photography,” Rauhauser said. “I became completely immersed in Detroit’s art world.”

Rauhauser credits his wife with his sudden and drastic career move. Doris, a kindergarten teacher in Detroit, understood her husband’s love for photography and supported him throughout their 60 years of marriage, even if he was late to dinner because he was combing the city streets in search of the next great photo.

“We met when I was 20 and she was 17,” Rauhauser said. “I went iceskating, and she skated up to me and asked if we could hold hands and skate around the rink. We did, and we were together ever since.”

Rauhauser taught three days a week, and continued on for many years, teaching at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan. The rest of his time was spent walking the streets of Detroit and taking photos of people going about their every day lives.

“Most of the work I did, people didn’t notice me at all,” Rauhauser said. “I kept a low profile and was shooting with a small camera. It was very exciting to track down and hunt for those moments of real significance in people’s lives. I didn’t pose anyone at all. I wanted to have them unknown, doing their thing, but they could still produce images that were significant to show life in Detroit.”

His favorite photo is exemplary of his practice — a black and white photo of a soldier sitting on a bench in front of the Detroit River. To the right is a woman that he is kissing, and to the left is another girl “just waiting her turn,” as Rauhauser said. “It turned out to be an interesting event.” The photo was placed into the 1955 City of Man exhibit at the MoMA and has been in New York ever since.

The product of this style of street photography resulted in a mass of photos spanning from the ‘40s until present day, displaying Detroiters at their best and their worst with the back drop of a city decaying behind them. The change over time is part of what draws people to Rauhauser’s work, and may be the reason he was just chosen as the sixth winner of the Kresge Eminent Artist award — an award given to an artist that contributes to the cultural community and shows dedication for the city of Detroit and its residents. And if anyone knows Detroiters, it’s Rauhauser, a man who has been studying them his entire life.

“I kept taking photos until I had to stop,” he said. “But I used to spend the whole day walking from morning until night, stopping for a cup of coffee and then starting out again.”

Though his age sometimes prevents him from pursuing such a rigorous shooting schedule, Rauhauser still takes photos, adding onto a library of about eight to ten thousand images that have yet to be printed. He keeps very busy, planning upcoming gallery shows, going to dinner or the opera, spending time with old students and visiting his hometown of Detroit.

Though the elm-tree lined city of his youth looks little like the city that stands today, Rauhauser is still optimistic that Detroit will rise again, as its city motto suggests. “You can see a change taking place,” he said. “You can see it happen.”