Embracing the Blight of the Midwest Industrial Landscape
It was Thursday afternoon, January 9, 2009. I was just outside downtown Dayton, to deliver my entry for the Hermes Award Competition at a meeting of the Dayton Advertising Club. My entry was for the photography category and included tear sheets from an editorial feature article that I shot over the summer for a local architectural magazine.
The drop-off location was the Webster Street Market, just off of East Third Street. It was a typical gray, cold day in the dead of winter, with a gun-metal sky and a dusting of snow. I looked around at my surroundings from the parking lot of the renovated warehouse. Nearby was the typical post-industrial wasteland that has become so common amongst the dilapidated and decaying urban cores of the American Midwest.
Graffiti colored walls, peeling paint, rusting pipes, falling brick and cracked concrete, with nothing but the sound of a cold wind and the occasional siren.
I was inspired. Not so much from any type of natural beauty or delicate light that usually moves me when photographing nature and landscapes, but more so from what I felt within and my own life experiences. Those scenes from living and working in similar surroundings.
Specifically, the three years in my early 20's when I had a direct and upfront daily interaction with the industrial workplaces - almost all auto manufacturing related - in both Dayton and Toledo. I drove a delivery truck for a company that provided industrial laundry products - uniforms, towels, entrance mats. It was that experience that awakened within me a new-found appreciation for higher education beyond followed by a determination to return to the idealistic and hopeful energy of the college campus, any campus.
At no time was that motivation to escape and get myself out of the drudgery of the industrial work-a-day world more acute than in the dead of those Midwestern winters of my young adulthood.
The visions, smells and sounds that haunt my memory and have formed my perspective of the industrial plants are many. All have a common theme of detached sadness - dreary monotony, dim light and a coldness felt to the bone. Sadness not only for my situation at that time but for all those souls who had no way of moving on or escaping. These were the scenes of their livelihoods and the points that represented their life destinations.
The stale smell of the dirt-covered tool and die shop. The hum of dim fluorescent lights overhead. The worker on the loading dock pressing in one nostril and blowing black, dust-filled snot out the other. The grime of the old locker room with the permanent stench of partially flushed toilets. Brown and black slush mixed with old cigarette butts, candy wrappers and brown-stained vending machine coffee cups.
The black suet under my fingernails and in the creases of my hands, so thick that not even the industrial strength Go-Jo soap (part of my inventory of my offerings as a uniform delivery driver) was useless.
Rusted steel mesh covering the few windows of the factory floor with just enough of the gray light of winter coming through to remind those inside that it was indeed daytime. The plastic tub filled with the used industrial dust mop heads, all overwhelmed in the black grime of their hopeless mission.
The clunk-clunk of always frigid steel-toed work shoes on the aluminum floor of the old Chevy step van. The long-handled stick shift covered in rubber bands from all the rolled-up rugs, thrown and placed at every door in the factories. Labor law posters hanging in the break rooms, locked behind glass to block the errant pen of the often-disgruntled union machinist.
Angry glances at the lone foreman along the relentless assembly lines of the auto plants. The pictures of bikini cover girls on the calendars from the tool company or parts delivery service, taped to the open tool chests - the only reminders of far away and unreachable places where the sun is not only seen on a daily basis but would actually warm the body during winter.
Struggling to get the 55-gallon steel drums full of partially frozen ink towels, and the ink that settled at the bottom, up and over the rear bumper of the step van. Black and blue splotches of spilled ink permanently dried into the front of my own durable press work uniform.
The winters that for me seemed to never end. On and on. Days and then weeks would go by when I never saw a smile or heard conversation beyond the bare necessities of just getting through the work day. The pale of depression and drudgery that had found fertile ground in these factories permeated outward from the factories and tool shops seemed to take hold in all areas of these Ohio cities and towns – from office workers, to retail shop owners, and even amongst parents and children.
As I looked out across that parking lot at Webster and East Third Street in Dayton last week, the memories, feelings and impressions from the time in my life came from someplace deep within my conscious, amplified by the familiar gloom of low, subdued light of another Midwest winter.
But now I took a different approach toward these light and life subjects that surrounded me. It would be the approach as artist and photographer. The creative and matured adult with a clearer understanding that it is not the physical nature of the surroundings that determine his destiny, but rather his perspective.
I think I have finally come through the letting go of the resentment or sense of loss over those years spent within that particular experience, but rather accepting that the industrial workplaces of my youth, no matter how forlorn, sad or hopeless, are a part of who I am.
Now that acceptance has been taken a step further by momentarily returning to the periphery of the post-industrial cityscape and begin to see actual - dare I say - beauty within and amongst the ruins in the old abandoned factories and warehouses.
The repeating curves of the concertina wire silhouetted against the gray sky. The texture of peeling paint and the revealed richness of color in the brick that was once hidden beneath. An old, abandoned school bus that has found a final resting place on the corner lot, recently serving as a billboard, at first advertising for the nearby street market, and now a medium of self-expression for the few residents who remain mostly unseen, and for the most part, unheard.
Lines that lead the eye along perfectly straight paths, intersecting at the convergence of factory walls and windows. The rusting exhaust pipes that now emit nothing but silent memories of busy days past. Cracked sidewalks lined with the brown skeletons of last summer's unchecked weeds.
This man-made covering over prairie, field and forest reveals remnants of lives committed to the monotonous, tedious work of auto and auto parts manufacturing and other unskilled and semi-skilled labor.
Ironically many of the first generation of people who worked in these jobs came to places such as Dayton and Toledo because of the opportunity to break free from much more rural settings and even poorer circumstances that was part of life in the Appalachian lands of Kentucky and Tennessee. A second wave followed during the titanic shift created from the massive industrial reaction to World War Two, from areas even further south, such Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
The bustling manufacturing plants to the north were seen as a chance to move up. Here was the escape from the societal trap that were so stifling for their previous generations. Years later that light of hope to the north would be virtually extinguished, leaving behind the rusting remains in which I wandered and photographed on a cold, dark day in January of 2009.
My ancestors had arrived to Dayton from the opposite direction, but were motivated by the same desire to start anew and work toward a better life, for both them and the generations that would follow. They first came from Ireland, then into Canada, over the river to Detroit and then, during the desperation that was the Great Depression, to Dayton.
The Midwest manufacturing plants for the auto, defense, and then back to auto industry, was the great pull. There was never a thought or concern that it could possibly end, or as is the case today, greatly diminished.
The journey of the artist is inherently multi-dimensional. Who he is, how he interprets life within and around him and his growth experiences combine to form one, unique vision. Just like those intersecting lines on those old buildings, the photographer matures to the point of appreciation for all that serves as the foundation from which his work – his visual creations – are built upon.
I suppose if I’d been born and raised in Southern California, or somewhere in the Rocky Mountain West, or even perhaps the Low Country of South Carolina, how I view and approach the world as a photographic artist would have been slightly skewed in other directions. Possibly the perspective arising from the idealism of academia, or the vibrant retail world of tourism, or even possibly the white-collar world of technological development and commerce.
Rather, the foundation of my life’s journey is rooted in what now is rapidly becoming the ruins of the Midwest industrial landscape – the very subject matter that I was now visiting and photographing.
It is also in these places where societal guilt runs deep, to the point of anger, animosity and denial, that unfortunately not unlike the pale, cold sky of the Midwest winter, shrouds all involved in a heavy cloak of the negativity and false pretenses of forced survival – in all levels of society. Perhaps no where else is the contrast between the haves and have-nots more pronounced than within these typical, medium-sized cities of Ohio. My own rejection of being fully integrated into one (a rejection that continues to be conveniently misconstrued and labeled as everything from perpetual immaturity to mild mental illness) while the other holds me in a constant state of contempt. However, it is the way – and sometimes curse – of the artist to engage visually and emotionally with the obvious that surrounds him.
Maybe it is appropriate that the industrial remains that I now walk within and photograph are nothing but decayed ruins, similar to the moss-covered tombstones and monuments of an old and forgotten cemetery. To say the least, it is a challenge to find visual beauty along these mostly quiet streets and industrial parks as compared to all other areas of the United States (especially at this time of year), but as it is so true in the often quoted saying. “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
It is here, in the streets of Dayton, where not only do I behold the beauty that I discover in so much neglect and decay, but come closer to understanding the artist and the person that I have become.