Of Steel and Men

"They killed my grandfather and orphaned my dad in 1911. Many a friend worked in them. And aClevelandmill ended the life of a dear and life long friend. But to all they were working and pay. A way of life. Awesome giants. They are becoming extinct and I can't contemplate life without them."

I went to the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Museum this afternoon, partly to get inspired for a story about East Liberty I'm writing, partly to see the "Clash of Empires" exhibit about the French and Indian War housed in the new Smithsonian wing of the museum, and partly because I hadn't been there since October. And to my surprise -- because I'm usually up on these things -- there was a photo exhibition focused on steel mills and, apparently, mill life.

"AfterImage: Mill Life Remembered" is a collection of photographs taken by native Western Pennsylvanian Richard Snodgrass in 1977. There were many views on display, ranging from images of mills in operation, mills lying dormant, the interior and exterior of homes in steel towns, and various other scenes apparently taken around the mills.

It was an interesting exhibition, to be sure, especially in light of the recent Luke Swank exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art. In the Swank collection were various images of mills and mill life taken during the '30s and '40s, among other various views of people and places. Like Snodgrass, Swank focused intentionally on heavy industry, most likely because, again like Snodgrass, Swank was native toWestern PA.

But that's where the similarities ended. Where Swank's photographs reflected an authenticity of purpose and life in the subjects of the views, Snodgrass's images were completely devoid of them. Some might argue that this could be because Snodgrass photographed the mills as they were dying, rather than when they were alive and hulking, the period Swank worked in. Remember, though, that the mills didn't fully disappear until the early- to mid-1980s and Snodgrass would have been able to photograph functional mills and, indeed, did.

The difference, though, is that they seemed forced. Swank's works exist almost as a documentary; Snodgrass's as tourist shots. Snodgrass had returned toWestern PAto shoot the steel towns, so perhaps that accounts for that feeling. But there's more to it than that, I think.

Take the images of the steel families' homes, for instance. What we get in these views are scenes of religious iconography placed in the backyard, semi-dilapidated homes with paint peeling off the walls, bar signs, and other vestiges of life. But we are robbed of the lives themselves. In Swank's works, when he shot a mill, the mill is the subject. They’re front and center, almost posed, to become something akin to functional art. But when he photographs the machinery inside the mill or the streets outside the mill gates, there are living, breathing, working people, either at work or returning from it. The machinery is important, the mills are important, but the people are the subjects. In one image, a man walks home from work. He’s in the mid-ground, homes and shops in the foreground, and the mill looms large in the background. The man is overshadowed by the mill, yet the road he’s on which flows from the foreground to the mill in the back connects him to it like a life line. It’s a powerful, striking image, in part because of it’s imagery but also because of its simplicity and honesty.

Contrast that with Snodgrass’s works. The mills, when they are the subject, are shot in a very pedestrian way. The entire mill is shown, usually in the middle of the frame. It’s importance is paramount, like a barn in some folk art painting. But there is no life to it, no dynamism. It’s been worked in and it’s been used, but by whom? And to what end? Those seem like silly questions to pose, especially for a Pittsburgher in relation to mill photos, but it reflects the lacking in the images. The photos of the homes and places the mill workers live have a similar detachment. The bedrooms and living spaces are lived in, but by whom? Have they simply been posed that way? Where are the faces? Who are the mill workers? An exhibition centered on the remembrance of mill life should not force such questions.

Throughout the exhibit, I found myself shaking my head and sighing, in disgust to a point but also annoyance. Snodgrass is a Western Pennsylvanian who, he claims, had an appreciation and understanding of how important the mills were -- and to a degree still are -- to the region. But it doesn’t show up in his photographs, and it 's certainly missing from his recollections of the shoots that litter the walls of the exhibit.

On one, he remembers how he talked his way into the house of some kindly mill worker and, while the worker and their family wasn’t looking, would snap shots of their living spaces. Why the embarrassment? Certainly blue-collar workers are intensely private and protective of that privacy, but if nothing else they’re proud people and they’ll share their experiences of hard work and loss, perhaps not to everyone who asks, but definitely to someone who was working to document their lives.

But that’s part of the problem – Snodgrass isn’t from a blue-collar background. On another recollection, he tells of his first encounter with anything approaching diversity when he dated an Italian American girl and met her stern, inquisitive, protective family. They called him “cake-eater,” he remembers. I don’t know much, but I know enough to know that being called “cake-eater” by immigrant laborers isn’t a term of endearment. More than that, though, it’s a reflection of class. These people worked in the mills, most likely, or a mine or some other dangerous, labor-intensive job that could get them killed, and they recognized that Snodgrass wasn’t from the same world.

If he were, he would have recognized that his eye is perhaps not the best to view and capture what it’s like for average, blue-collar mill workers. Another recollection card is very telling in this respect.

“Five years earlier,” Snodgrass writes, “I had tried photographing inWest Aliquippa, but it didn’t work out. I wore a long overcoat and blue Breton cap, trying to evoke the spirit of the great photographer Paul Strand. But the first time I set up my camera, half the men in the bar across the street came out after me, yelling in broken English that they didn’t want no foreigners around. It was understandable; it was Sunday afternoon and the Steelers were losing in the playoffs.”

Besides painting himself out to utterly self-involved as a photographic artiste -- trying to evoke Paul Strand by wearing certain clothing; c'mon -- this attempt at being witty and ironic -- foreigners complaining about not wanting immigrants around in broken English, get it? -- reveals the depths of his shallowness in this endeavor.

The men in the bar reacted to him as an immigrant because, in many ways, his Paul Strand get-up marked him as someone outside the class ofWest Aliquippaand, thus, an immigrant to the land. They likely didn’t want some stranger attempting to appropriate their heritage in this country, their legacy and stamp on the land and those around them, for some strange means. They didn’t rush out in anger because the Steelers were losing; that’s nonsense utterly contemptible logic. Instead, they were attempting to prevent this guy from stealing their piece of the pie, even if through the lens of a camera (which Snodgrass called “Maggie Mae,” by the way).

My negative reaction to Snodgrass’s photos was certainly out of disdain for his work as a photographer, but also my disgust as a child of a steel worker. I grew up around that industry and was aware enough to recognize the impact it had on my family when they shut down and laid my mom off, as well as the impact on those my mom worked with and the people that lived around us and the city itself. Snodgrass didn’t have that experience. He was living somewhere else, studying somewhere else, whenWestern PAwas crumbling along the shores of the rivers like a row of dominoes cascading towards oblivion. It’s nice that he wanted to document these beasts of industry, but he lacked perspective and that’s reflected in his photographs. His work seemed disingenuous, and that feeling was hard to shake when looking at the photographs.

When I finished the exhibit, I saw a book sitting on a table for people to write their reactions to the show and their memories in. Usually, if I’m not going to enter anything, I walk right past it. But I was interested to see what other people thought about the show, especially since former mill workers would certainly have visited the show.

Among the nonsensical ramblings of kids who saw the exhibit during a field trip were testimonials about how great the images were, how touching the show was, and some complaints, but not nearly as many as I would have thought. But then there were recollections of working in the mill, something I wasn’t prepared for but should’ve been.

That’s where the quote that opens this piece came from. I couldn’t make out the name of the person who wrote it, but it was probably an older man with hands that reflect his years in the mill. His account was wrenching and honest and a stark comparison to the images on display. His words carry a gravity that can only come from experiencing the pain and heartache -- the life -- of existing symbiotically with the mills.

That experience, that reaction, is ultimately what’s missing from the photographs in “AfterImage.” There’s more life in the 55-word recollection of that mill worker than in any one of Snodgrass’s images. But that’s to be expected when a cake-eating immigrant tries to tell the story of the mills and the people who are forever connected with them.