Artist Ben Schonberger and retired Detroit Police Sergeant Marty Gaynor make an odd couple. Schonberger is a photographer, a curator and a connoisseur of masculine archetypes. Gaynor is a matter-of -fact man of action cheerfully going about his work, seemingly untroubled (although occasionally irritated) by the subtleties and complexities of his job.
The art exhibit Beautiful Pig is a collaboration between the two men and is on view until September 8 at River House Arts in Toledo. In creating this archive and accompanying book with materials provided by Gaynor, Schonberger says, “I embarked on an image-making process alongside Marty to see if I could understand the realities of identity, spirituality, and empathy.” This carefully curated collection contains many years’ worth of Gaynor’s Polaroids of police co-workers, suspects and crime scenes. There are meticulously mounted notes, police paper work and official forms documenting the day-to-day interactions between the police and the (mostly black) citizens of Detroit.
“Beautiful Pig is not just a story about police work in Detroit during the late twentieth century, but about the whole world of policing,”
Barbara Tannenbaum, Curator of Photography, Cleveland Museum of Art
Throughout the exhibit there is an unavoidable dissonance between the high ideals expressed in the Police Code of Ethics and the brutal facts on the ground of everyday police work. In the ongoing fight against crime in Detroit, it is clear that respect for individual rights is the first casualty. The requirements of police activity are at war with empathy and respect. Many of the images in the archive are shocking in their raw depiction of violence on the street.
Schonberger strives to find common ground with his subject, both as a man and a fellow Jew. He has photographed Gaynor with a prayer shawl over his uniform, next to a neon Star of David, and has added the Hebrew word for gold (also in neon) as a tribute to Gaynor’s post-retirement job as a pawnbroker. He even puts himself in Gaynor’s shoes-literally- posing in a t-shirt with a gun and police style cap.
Schonberger clearly feels great empathy for his collaborator and for the difficulty of police work with its moral ambiguity, routine drudgery and occasional violence. In the end though, I had the feeling that the gulf separating these two men was unbridgeable. Or to quote artist and writer Anouk Kruithof, Beautiful Pig is “a loaded puzzle that cannot be resolved.”