Photographer Profile - Michael DeFilippo: "There's a difference between seeing and really noticing"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday October 25, 2016

One of the more splendid things about ideas is the way they shape-shift, given changing circumstances. Earlier this year, for instance, St. Louis-based commercial photographer Michael DeFilippo  hatched a plan to shoot a personal project marking the US Interstate Highway System, which was launched 60 years ago by President Dwight Eisenhower.

His plan quickly evolved.

“Business for me was abysmally slow during the first quarter, and since it was the 60th anniversary of the interstates, I thought it would be an interesting way to fill up my spare time,” he says. “As it happens, 2016 is also my 60th birthday year, so the idea seemed like a natural.”

DeFilippo’s  interest in America’s great highways dates back a while — he did some wandering as a young man just out of Colgate University — but it intensified in 2013, when he drove from St. Louis to Portland, Oregon, for the wedding of his son, taking in the American landscape along the way.

His first inclination was to shoot a multi-state travelog. “I imagined shots with gas station signs and McDonalds signs and Motel 6 signs glowing at twilight, showing how the interstates had homogenized America,” he says. Later, he realized he couldn’t make the logistics of the story work, so he decided to stay closer to home and document what interstates had done to St. Louis.

The Interstate Highway System, one of America’s greatest public works projects, was sold to Congress and the public as a military necessity when it was created during the Cold War. But the 47,000 miles of federally funded roads that were eventually built had a more far-reaching social and economic impact, connecting the country’s cities as never before and spurring Americans to buy cars as never before.

They also bisected cities and formed boundaries of cement that walled off neighborhoods from each other, changing the urban landscape of America.

“That was especially the case in older industrial cities like St. Louis, which got blindsided,” DeFilippo says. “I wanted to look at the unintended consequences of the highways.”

He spent five months photographing 40 of the 41 St. Louis neighborhoods touched by interstates, shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II. His goal, he says, was not to create “ruin porn.”

“I wanted to show places where there is still life and activity, where people make their way every day with the interstate as their neighbor. That takes a lot of grit,” he says. “This was a personal project, and I wanted to approach it with open eyes and see what I hadn’t ever noticed before.”

Unexpectedly, he did more than that. His project hit a nerve, garnering media attention and bringing him emails from people across the country who are troubled by what the interstates have done to their cities.

Years and Mileage

At the website  for his project, DeFilippo describes the impact of the interstates on St. Louis by paraphrasing Indiana Jones: “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”

Neither years nor miles have been kind to the city, which turned 250 in 2014, he notes.

“In the 1870s, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in America,” he says. “Today it has dropped from a peak population of 800,000 to about 350,000. St. Louis historically was a place people left to go elsewhere — down the Mississippi, up the Missouri, or overland to the west. The interstates have made it a lot easier for them to do that.”

Four interstate freeways, I-44, I-55, I-64, and I-70, converge in downtown St. Louis, while the I-270 beltway crosses the Mississippi River at the city’s Riverview neighborhood, DeFilippo writes. “Today it’s not uncommon for people to commute 80, 90 or 100 miles to the city from their homes in the metropolitan area,” he says.

DeFilippo’s interest in history is longstanding. “My first exposure to photography was through studying history in college," he says. "In fact, the first photographer I was exposed to was Mathew Brady."  He grew up in West Long Branch, New Jersey, and in 1980 moved to St. Louis, where he had a girlfriend. There he became involved in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and local politics; on a trip to an event in South Dakota he shot some pictures — “just sunsets and rainbows,” he says — that friends praised.

Later he got a job assisting a local commercial photographer, who taught him lighting. “I also looked at photo books and work by photographers I liked and tried to figure out how to do what they were doing,” he says.

The Right Timing

Today he shoots editorial, travel, and corporate work, along with personal projects, including one about military ordnance displayed in the American landscape. In 2013 he celebrated his 30th anniversary as a professional photographer with a retrospective at the Regional Arts Commission in St. Louis, an event that doubled as a fundraiser for a women's shelter.

“St. Louis is a big small town — it’s a nice place to live,” says DeFilippo, who often gets around locally on a bike. He started his project on interstates by drawing up a shot list of the areas he wanted to shoot. “When I wasn’t doing a commercial job or the weather was nice or the light was good, I would work on it. There were some places I would go to one time, and some I had to return to when there was better light,” he says.

The images he shot don’t necessarily show the freeways that divide the city, but their presence is always felt. A number feature ironic juxtapositions — a pickup truck speeding down a freeway with a mobile home in tow, behind which appears an abandoned brick building whose best days are long gone.

The timing of the project was certainly right: Politicians have begun looking anew at the impact the roads have had — how some neighborhoods were razed and others bounded in a process that in many cases fueled segregation and poverty. The Huffington Post  notes that U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced an initiative earlier this year to promote transit infrastructure that is more inclusive and not solely focused on cars. Meanwhile, urban planners are promoting solutions, including “capping” freeways with pedestrian-friendly overpasses.

“I’m a visual person, and I respond to beauty, and here were these freeways, which make life easy but aren’t pretty. So I’d closed off seeing them. I hadn’t really seen the interstates as barriers and boundaries between people,” says DeFilippo. “I’d like this project to perhaps get photographers in other cities to look at how interstates have affected life. There’s a difference between seeing and really noticing.”