The first time I met Stephen Shore was in 2019 at Photo London, but I have known and been influenced by his work for far longer. At Photo London (during the Press Event) Shore was interviewed, alongside my friend Mary McCartney (daughter of Paul) by William A Ewing. Shore’s latest release by Mack Books entitled Steel Town combines a series of images that he took in 1977 when he travelled across New York state, Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio – the latter in the midst of industrial decline and soon to be known as the Rust Belt.
It was in 1977 when Fortune Magazine commissioned Stephen Shore to produce an extended photographic report in connection with the industrial decline across western New York state Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, an area that would eventually be known as the Rust Belt. Over the course of a week at the end of October, Shore worked with his 5×4” view camera photographing in the towns and factories and meeting some of the workers and their families. This series was published with the title “Hard Times Come to Steeltown”. Shore was aged 30 at the time and is now the author of over 40 books. He expressed this was “the most extensive commission I had done for a magazine to that date”.
MACK books have produced a book that is wholly in keeping with the sombre mood of the images Shore has created. The steel textured colour cover supplanted with one image sets the tone, matching both the physicality of steel and metaphorically the starkness within.
Shore’s images capture the deterioration of life, homes on the brink of collapse, fractured cars, workers, union leaders and family members. Most had voted for Jimmy Carter the year before and Shore found many were now disenchanted with their new president. Mass redundancies, tripling the unemployment within one summer pushed many into poverty. Initially, the people of Steeltown challenged what was happening, confident the Democratic Party had their back, staging demonstrations against factory closures and the like. Unfortunately, the Party had undergone a critical shift in its beliefs, so keen were they to contend with the economy. The newly in power Democrats, leaned more to the right, than the left and consequently Carter began a massive deregulation programme.
This book contains portraits of newly redundant steelworkers within the fragility of their newly formed environment, derelict factories, desolate bars, as the buoyant prosperity of the previous two decades, following World War II, began to fade. In sharp contrast to the UK, I might add, following the War our debt sucked the life out of most people. Suicides, drug overdoses and further self destructive behaviour began to rise in Steeltown. In one impromptu speech, a worker told a Washington Post reporter ‘we’re fed up and we’re scared, why not give Reagan a chance?”. Reagan was voted in Ohio by November and attempted to redirect the anger from Wall Street and more towards crack addicts, feminists, immigrants and any other groups he felt the Democrats supported. Battlegrounds were drawn up between the two parties which only led to an increase of racism and sexism, none of which helped the people of Steeltown.
Bill Clinton, leading the Democrats, later regained power, he supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organisation – diverting more jobs to Mexico and China. Steeltown meanwhile festered for the next 20 years. His wife, Hilary won the Mahoning Valley by the smallest of margins, 3% in 2016. In 2020 it had swung Republican.
Battles over policies but also what was morally right/wrong raged. Trump supporters vs Democrats, two opposing sides, seethed. Many of the disillusioned Steeltown residents, so full of hatred could not see what was happening, as tax cuts to the affluent piled up.
Shore’s Steel Town is a book tracing history, as much as a photographic endeavour, it is not meant to be a political book but as so often in life, our lives are lead by it. It is a book about life and death, not just of people but of businesses. It is about ‘Steel’ Town teetering to ‘Steal’ Town, it is a book about change, adversity and hard times, about a life of two parts. And it is one you should buy.
A Look Inside ‘Steel Town’ by Stephen Shore
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