Thursday, November 20, 2008

Flint Portraits: Thomas Wirt

Thomas Wirt — a.k.a. Jar With Most — has graciously let me use several of his photos on Flint Expatriates. Here's an interview where he discusses his photography and his life in Flint.

The Jade Shoppe

Most Flint Expatriates define themselves by where they went to school. What’s your academic history?

I grew up on the west side of Flint, my family's house is on Downey Street, two blocks away from Zimmerman School. My parents still live there. I went to Zimmerman, when it was an elementary school, from kindergarten to the second grade, 1963 to 1966. In 1966 Eisenhower Elementary School was built, and I went there from 3rd to 6th grade, then back to Zimmerman for junior high, from 7th to 9th grade. I went to Southwestern from 1974 to 1976, but I skipped a lot of school, and had to make up my last year of school at the Flint Schools of Choice on 5th Avenue, graduating with a Southwestern diploma in 1977.

A mural in Brush Alley

How did you get started in photography?

I got interested in photography in the mid '70s, it helped a lot that my father had a darkroom in our home's basement that I used. My father worked at The Flint Journal, and later at Smith-Bridgman's, as a commercial artist in the 1960s.

After I graduated from high school, in 1977, I went to work at JD Color Lab on Corunna Road, working in darkrooms and developing film. I worked there until 1983, then went to work at a 1-hour photo lab in the Eastland Mall (now the Courtland Center) until 1986. At that time, I wanted to get another job, but I couldn't find anything in the photographic field in the Flint area. I moved to Lansing in 1986, and worked at a custom photographic lab until 1997, when film-based photography started to decline. I am no longer employed in the field of photography. I take more pictures now with my digital camera then I ever did with my film cameras when I was working in photo labs, and when I had my own darkroom.

The D. Levasseur Building on the corner of North Franklin Avenue and Leith Street.

You have a gift for capturing the reality of Flint in an affectionate way, if that’s the right term. How do you choose your subjects?

Some of the subjects I choose are for nostalgic reasons, places that were important to me when I was growing up, such as Southwestern and Zimmerman schools, and St. Matthews school, where my sisters went to school. My parents had a hobby shop in "The Jade Shoppe" building, before I was born. Your observation that my shots "seem to capture the promise Flint once held and the reality of its present state" and "are depressing and nostalgic at the same time" is very astute, that is exactly what I think about and feel when I see these scenes and take the pictures.

Stevens Moving and Storage near the site of the old Buick City factory complex.

Where are you now?

I've been living in Lansing, only about an hour away from Flint, for the last 20 years, and come back to Flint kind of sporadically, sometimes I go several months between visits. Being away for such long periods, I haven't seen the changes that slowly happen, and I'm struck by how different it is from when I lived there. Like how there is razor wire all over the place. I don't remember seeing that when I lived there. And how there are almost no signs of the factories that were once what Flint was all about. I think that if I was living in Flint all along, I may not be as interested in my home town as I am now. When I started taking my digital photos of Flint a few years ago, it was just for my own collection, I just wanted to have some pictures of home that I could look at. I've done Google searches for pictures of Flint, especially the Flint that I remember growing up, and could find almost nothing on the Internet about it, so I decided to share the photos that I have with the world. I will continue taking, and posting more pictures of Flint.

The Durant Hotel renovation project


  1. Thanks for sharing your photographic memories, Thomas. Good stuff!

    "The Future Lives in Flint!"

  2. Thomas has always been very talented....He is also a great music affectionado as well. We went to punk shows in Flint and he introduced me to the English group the Smiths. His work is always amazing!

    Roadside DinerLover

  3. the jade shoppe-right across from zimmerman's east entrance, right? that's where the VCY group met back in the 60's. Presbyterian church right across Corunna from that block of buildings, right? damn, been too long since I've been there...

  4. Thomas' photos are amazing, and take me to a Flint I never saw, before I was born. The shots of downtown from the late seventies really grab me, since they are of places not normally documented on film. On top of that, the commentaries on each picture explain many places that I've seen, but never knew the story behind. Thank you for the awesome work, and keep it up!

  5. Thomas, are your mom and dad Mildred and Jim by chance? If so, I've been to your family home many many times in the past. I've lost contact with Jim, and not even certain he's still around anymore.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at