Jenny Risher, a frequent Hour contributor, grew up near Mt. Clemens and received a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from the College for Creative Studies in 1997 before bolting to New York. “I was assisting here, all for car photographers,” Risher says. “The moment when I was pulling nibs off tires with pliers, I just thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’” She spent the last 15 years in the Big Apple, shooting for the likes of Marie Claire, Vanity Fair, DKNY, and Kate Spade.
Now as the mother of two young boys, with a husband who shares roots in the area, and a Detroit-centric book under her belt, Risher recently moved back to the place where it all began.
“I always knew that when I had kids, I’d move home, because I love the way that I was raised,” she says. “I just like the innocence that I grew up with. In New York, you’re so confronted with subways and loud noises. It’s a different pace. I like that, growing up, it was a little slower.”
During an hourlong conversation, the 38-year-old recently discussed lessons learned from her first book: how to conduct an interview, what “celebrity” means, and the Motor City’s je ne sais quoi.
— Mark Kurlyandchik
[Full disclosure: Momentum Books, a subsidiary of Hour Media, is publishing Heart Soul Detroit. It was also edited by former Hour staffer Matt Lee. But we’d love this book, regardless of its publisher.]
Considering the caliber of subjects you’ve got in this book, some would say you’ve “made it” as a photographer. Do you agree?
I think I’m “making it.” I’m just happy I’m shooting and working.
When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
I never thought you could make a living off of [photography]. I just kind of followed it. In high school, they had these scholastic competitions. I entered these competitions, and I was able to win this Gold Key scholarship. You choose three schools, and one of them was [College] for Creative Studies in Detroit. I ended up getting a really good scholarship to go to that school.
Are you sick of the Q&A format by now?
I never interviewed anybody before. The book was intended to be portraits and then a quote about their fondest memory [of Detroit]. But then everybody’s fondest memory was the same: Christmastime at Hudson’s. So after, like, the 10th person, I thought, ‘Maybe we should mix this up.’
The interviews in the book are presented with only the subjects’ answers. Why eliminate the ‘Q’ from ‘Q&A’?
Because you get it. You don’t need it all laid out for you. And it’s more interesting because you can kind of formulate the questions in your mind, so it’s kind of interactive, you know? It’s like you’re really part of the conversation.
What have you learned about interviewing?
I learned a lot from Bill Bonds. He was in the beginning, and I was really nervous, just even reading off the paper. I would have my questions, and he would say, ‘Just remember: The people that you’re interviewing want to be interviewed.’ So that kind of takes away any pressure. And secondly, ‘Make it a conversation, because conversation is more interesting than confrontation.’
Is he as combative as his reputation?
I think maybe he’s calmed down in his age. I don’t think I would have gotten the interview, or even the pictures, in his heyday. From what I’ve read, he was pretty difficult. But I think all things, in time, they relax out. And maybe I caught him at the right time.
Could the same be said for Eminem?
Maybe, yeah. I don’t think I would have gotten the interview with him [a few years ago]. But in a way, now, it kind of makes it more special, because he doesn’t do any interviews. And any time he does do something, he really means it. He doesn’t need to pimp his latest album.
How do you get someone as notoriously reclusive as Jack White to agree to do your book?
These people can do anything. I don’t think any one thing would have made them want to do it, no matter who else is in the book. Eminem is the best-selling artist of the decade. He doesn’t need to do my little book. It’s just really a choice of his manager, or if they believe in the project, or if they believe in the sincerity of me, maybe. … Jack White took about a year. It’s funny, because in the beginning, I thought, ‘If I can just find somebody’s brother, I can just ask them.’ It doesn’t work like that. ‘My hairdresser knows his cousin.’ It doesn’t work like that. It’s really a business, and you have to find the right channels.
Who most surprised you?
I was surprised that I got Berry Gordy, because he doesn’t do anything. And I was surprised by how much I wanted him to adopt me. [laughs] He’s such a wonderful man. You just meet him and you feel warmth and love. He’s so charismatic. I photographed him at his pool house in Beverly Hills. We were all set up, and I got there a couple hours early just to make sure everything was right. I didn’t sleep the night before and was so nervous. His assistants came walking down with him, and all I could think was, ‘Oh my god, what is this girl from Mt. Clemens doing here in Beverly Hills with Berry Gordy?!’ When you see your dreams walking towards you, it’s kind of awesome.
Was anybody completely different from their public persona?
Eminem. But I guess I didn’t know what to expect. It took me two years to get a shoot date, and then six months to get the interview. The shoot was done at Coachella, in Palm Springs. I went there and photographed him … at this location where he was staying, at the Parker-Palms Hotel. We got a little conference room and set up our backgrounds. But they had like five of his security guards come up and sweep the place, and then they stayed after they swept it just to make sure it was cool. Even though I had been conversing with his managers for two years, and they knew me pretty well, I guess it was just a precaution. You never know. There are crazies out there. [Eminem] comes in and he’s just the sweetest, nicest guy, [not] the big personality that he once was or is maybe still in there. He was just quiet and nice.
He’s matured quite a bit.
Maybe that’s what it was. He’s 40 now, so probably a lot has changed since he was 20. But he’s just so sweet and so nice. We talked about pretty much everybody in the book. He was excited that Emanuel Steward was in it, because I guess Emanuel had trained him.
You’re dealing with security and handlers, but in the book, Eminem talks about going to Walmart.
That’s what surprised me the most. He’s a real person. He definitely loves his daughters, loves his family. He loves just being at home. I don’t see him as a flashy guy.
Has the project changed your perception of fame?
What I’ve realized the most is that these people are just people. I think Mitch Ryder says it in his interview he did with us: ‘Fame is a weird thing. It’s just the path that I chose.’ I think the fame is just part of their career path. They just followed their passion or love, and the fame came along with it. Like Lee Iacocca — I’m sure he never attempted to be the most iconic car person in America. He was just trying to progress at his job.
It’s great that you got Emanuel Steward and Jack Kevorkian before they died.
A lot of these people are in their 80s. And it wasn’t a conscious decision to photograph older people; it just happened. The criteria was: Are they world-renowned? And, really, are their roots in Detroit? Lee Iacocca spent 60 years in Detroit and started on pretty much the salesroom floor, which is pretty amazing. He worked his way up.
That seems to be a common thread. Jerry Bruckheimer talks about the advertising work he did before becoming a big-name director.
He started on the mailroom floor at some agency in Detroit and then just worked his way up. He grew up near Northland [Mall]. It was so funny, because I went everywhere to photograph these people. It just so happened that he had some time during the Pirates of the Caribbean press tour. Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz are in the hallway, and Jerry Bruckheimer and I are talking about Northland … and how much he loves hockey. He’s a real Detroiter. It was his idea for the Mumford T-shirt in Beverly Hills Cop.
Allee Willis, who did music for Beverly Hills Cop, is also in the book.
That’s what’s amazing, is all the links. Allee Willis had pretty much written all the Pointer Sisters songs, and a lot of Patti LaBelle songs, and the theme from Friends. But before that, she had proposed a bid for this new movie, Beverly Hills Cop. And during the first screening of the movie, she and Jerry were sitting next to each other. Then Eddie Murphy’s Mumford shirt came on and she started crying! Can you imagine? They both [Bruckheimer and Willis] had went to Mumford High School.
Have you developed any lasting relationships?
I try to keep in contact with all my subjects, no matter who they are, because I think it’s good. You never know how the story evolves, or if you might need them for permission. I think it’s cool to keep in contact and give them prints. Plus, I just think it’s good karma: If you take a picture of somebody, give them copies.
You’re donating part of the book’s proceeds?
Specifically to this photography organization within Focus:HOPE that takes students and they go on field trips and they teach them about photography. … My donation will help pay for film and field trips and paper and whatever supplies they might need.
There’s that good karma again.
It is good karma! I guess maybe it’s an Asian philosophy inherited from my mom [who is from Singapore]. In a way, it kind of completes the circle, because I received that scholarship. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have been able to go to CCS if I hadn’t.
Having now done the book, have you hit on what makes Detroit so special?
The original name of our book was Detroit Icons. It just never felt right. … What was kind of recurring through the book was that Detroit has heart and it has soul. And that’s something that everybody talks about — is how much heart the people of Detroit have — and the spirit. When you think of Detroit, you don’t really think of the people of Detroit, it’s more like the spirit of Detroit — like an idea or the energy, the hope for new possibilities.
Images and video of interviews from Heart Soul Detroit will be on display at the College for Creative Studies’ Center Galleries through March 2. Visit collegeforcreativestudies.edu for more information.