Photo Credit: Jeremey Blakeslee.
Since I started a welding class three weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about metal, about steel. I’ve found myself suddenly inspired by the noisy metal shop at Mass Art, thinking about what I can make from sheets of steel, what sort of object can come from something so solid. It led my brain directly to Bethlehem Steel, the company that provided the steel beams for Rockafeller Center, the Crystler and Empire State Buildings, as well as the Hoover and Grand Coole Dams and the Golden Gate Bridge. It was the second largest steel mill in the United States, just after U.S. Steel out in Pittsburgh. I could go on and on about the finer details of Bethlehem Steel but instead, for a brief overview, I’ll direct you to the wiki page.
The land and structures left at the Bethlehem Steel Complex along the river are at the center of local controversy since it was sold in 2003 and then purchased by Sands Bethworks in 2007. Right now, construction is underway for a massive casino, another push in the direction to “culturally” and economically revive Bethlehem and the Leigh Valley. The casino is sought to bring millions in the Valley, to the South Side of Bethlehem. It is a complicated matter, as the part of the revenue from the casino is to go back into preserving the historical landmark and the story of the company. Save Our Steel is a comprehensive website dedicated to making sure the history of Bethlehem is preserved.
I was both unsurprised and saddened when I heard of the plans to demolish a large part of the complex along the Lehigh River. I’ve been following the story as it unfolds, in bits and pieces, through The Morning Call, absorbing the whole process from the distance of my kitchen table/computer screen. I want to see a lot of things happen for a place with such a mighty history. I want to see those towering, massive buildings preserved. I want to see them used to teach not only the local history but the rise and fall of industry in the American economy. For people to try and understand the hard work, space and time that was required to fabricate steel for some of the tallest buildings in North America. What I don’t want to see put there is a casino. What I don’t want to see put there is a glorified sports bar and 600,000 dollar condos. To me, that seems like a back-handed compliment to the people who not only worked there, but lived and died by Bethlehem Steel. In a way, I am glad that it is at least headed for preservation and the whole thing wasn’t wiped away from the surface of the earth for the sake of a strip mall or Wal-Mart. But, a casino? Really?
So, I’ve been thinking about steel a lot, thinking about it in relation to the work that I’ve done in the past. While I know it’s been heavily photographed and documented, I feel like a small project of about 8-10 photographs could be the thing that I need to start making work again. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, mulling over ideas and books, absorbing information and asking questions. I haven’t had the time nor the money nor the energy to expend to continue with Coal Hunkie. I’ve been looking for something to jump start my thinking and making process again. On top of that, I also purchased a Nikon D-40 as a means to continue making pictures. I’m not all that interested in making straight pictures with a digital camera (it’s far too direct, I think) but I am interested in compiling large photos from a batch of single photos. I want to avoid a panoramic format, because that seems really obvious. I want something in between a super-long panoramic and a 4×5 photograph. In due time I plan on fabricating a large steel shadow box frame for one of the photos.
I will be visiting the National Museum of Industrial History across and just up the street from the original office building when I am in the Valley. I will also be browsing the Moravian Book Store for some much needed reading material. In some ways, I feel like “It’s been done”. In one way, I’m just looking to make pictures again. In another way, I want to join the dialog that’s been humming all over the Valley for the last 10 years.
A few more links, for the interested:
Bethlehem Online: Steel. Includes a map of the complex.
Forging America: A History of Bethlehem Steel. From The Morning Call.
Design Breakdown: Big Steel. Photographs.
The Sinking of Bethlehem Steel. An article from Fortune Magazine.
Anthracite Railroading Blog. Entries about Bethlehem Steel and my other favorite part of PA: The Coal Region.