Andrew Borowiec’s photography shows us how our country’s landscape has evolved. The new positioned with the old; our history co-opted into marketing solutions – morphed into the new American lifestyle. Borowiec’s Rust Belt photographs provide a very real look into the neighborhoods of America’s dwindling industrial heartland. While the contents of some of the photographs may be recognizable, the presentation is always thought-provoking. –RF
Charleroi, PA 2009
What got you interested in photography?
When I was in high school I wanted to be a zoologist, so I took a couple of night classes to learn how to photograph animals. I set up a darkroom in our air raid shelter and spent hours in the woods taking pictures of birds and small mammals. Then, on a school trip to Florence, I made some pictures that weren’t like anything I had seen before, such as a shot in a medieval cloister of four white men in dark suits carrying a coffin past a white-clad black man who was sitting on the floor taking notes. To me those pictures looked like fragments of interrupted stories, believable yet somehow clearer and more charged than ordinary reality. Not long after that I saw Cartier-Bresson’s work in a magazine and I was hooked—I never took another picture of magpies or hedgehogs.
Mingo Junction, OH 1994
When you became serious about photography, who and what inspired your work and vision?
In college I discovered Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank and I read John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs so many times that I had it memorized. I had some great teachers in graduate school—Tod Papageorge, Paul McDonough, Frank Gohlke—who not only provided the example of their own wonderful work, but helped me to further understand photographs. Frank Gohlke introduced me to the writings of the landscape geographer J.B. Jackson, who became a central influence on how I think about and photograph the landscape: the idea that, if you look closely enough at the clues that a place provides, you can understand its history and the social, economic, and cultural conditions of the people who inhabit that place.
Most of all, I’ve been inspired by the great French photographer Eugene Atget. Seeing the four exhibitions of his work that John Szarkowski organized at MOMA was a turning point for me. I think you can learn everything you need to know about photography just from looking at Atget. Taken as a whole, his pictures are like a great, epic, Nineteenth Century novel—by turns beautiful, lyrical, informative, philosophical, comical, visually surprising, and always informed by Atget’s intelligence and understanding of his subject’s meaning in its full density and complexity.
Homestead, PA 2009
What drew you to the Rust Belt and factory valleys of Ohio and Pennsylvania?
I came here thanks to an accident of circumstance: I got a job teaching photography in Akron. I had spent my childhood overseas, and in the U.S. I had only lived on the East Coast, so at first the landscape of Ohio seemed wonderfully exotic to me. As I began making pictures of my surroundings, I gradually learned that this region had played a vital role in establishing America’s prosperity and in forging our national identity. You could see how the landscape itself had been shaped by human needs: its history was visible in the topography of the land, in the architecture of the towns, in peoples’ backyards. The things that made possible our way of life were manufactured here but, for most people, America was defined by more glamorous landscapes: the monumental West, the romantic South, austere New England, even hardscrabble Appalachia. And so I began to make pictures of our industrial heartland.
I had barely been here a year before I first heard the term Rust Belt. When I moved to Akron in 1984 the four largest rubber companies in America were still based here but were in the process of shutting down plants and moving their operations elsewhere. The same thing was happening with steel mills, auto factories, and the other industries that had been the region’s economic mainstay. People were losing their jobs, their homes, their place in the world. I found myself making pictures about a way of life that was disappearing, and things have only grown worse over the past quarter of a century.
Moscow, OH 1997
Would you say your work is politically motivated in any way?
I suppose there has always been a certain level of political content in my work, as I’m interested in social and economic circumstances. Over the years I’ve been mildly active in politics in various ways—participating in demonstrations, helping get out the vote, and so forth. However, in 2004 I was a “challenger” for the Democratic Party during the presidential election. Our role wasn’t to challenge anyone but, on the contrary, to prevent Republican challengers from following through with their stated intentions to make it difficult for people to vote. I was assigned to a blue-collar precint in Akron, trying to help people vote when they lacked the right kind of ID or were in the wrong polling place. Over the course of a depressing, thirteen-hour day, as the election results gradually rolled in, I thought about how much the Midwest had changed since I had moved here. In 1984 Ohio’s senators were John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum, two of the most progressive, generous, caring, and broad-minded politicians to ever serve in Congress. Twenty years later we elected George W. Bush… I couldn’t understand how the people who lived in the struggling factory towns that I had photographed would vote against their own best interests. When the New York Times published a map that showed how the vote had gone, precinct by precinct, I discovered that there was an alternative Ohio that I didn’t know existed, and I decided to see what that place looked like. That was the original motivation for my New Heartland project.
When hurricane Katrina struck at the end of the summer in 2005, it seemed as if every photographer I knew wanted to go down to the Gulf to photograph the aftermath. I had close ties to the region and had friends who lost their homes, their business, their families; if I could have gone to New Orleans then, it would have been to help, not to take pictures. However, a year later I realized there was a different story to be told, one that wasn’t about the devastating power of nature but about the even more destructive effect of deliberate, institutionalized, politically motivated neglect. We can put up an entire shopping mall in under six months, but somehow we weren’t able to rebuild one of our oldest and culturally most important cities. There’s a strategy developed by conservatives during the Reagan years called “starving the beast” that involves shrinking the “beast” of government assistance for the needy so much that eventually you could “drown it in a bathtub,” as Grover Norquist so compassionately put it. Well, now you don’t have to imagine what America might look like if right-wing fundamentalists get their wish. If you want to see what starving the beast looks like, just drive around the black neighborhoods of New Orleans that were destroyed by Katrina. So yes, my Gulf after 2005 photos were politically motivated.
Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans, LA 2007
For your book, Along the Ohio, you wrote:
“I made the photographs in the 1980s and 90s in the Ohio River Valley, a region that was central to the United States’ development as an industrial power. I tried to describe the efforts people make to achieve some semblance of the American Dream under less than ideal circumstances.”
Would you call some of your work a meditation on what America was and what it has become?
I suppose I would call it a lamentation for what America is becoming. I don’t mean to idealize the past—the kinds of jobs in heavy industry that made this region prosperous were difficult and often dangerous, and certainly living in mid-Twentieth Century America was no picnic if you were black, or even for women. However, despite the many social and political problems, it was also a time of hope. We had vanquished the scourge of fascism and things were looking up: economic equality was increasing, the middle class was growing, higher education was becoming accessible to everybody, we were instituting programs to help the most needy among us, our government was enacting laws to make our environment and our working conditions safer, and the long struggle for Civil Rights was finally getting somewhere. Is any of that true about American today?
I was a teenager during the Vietnam War and was vehemently opposed to the war but still felt proud to be an American. Back then, we stood for freedom and fairness and equal opportunity, at least in principle (while we were secretly propping up third-world dictators and fighting illegal wars). It was encouraging that our population could rise up and act to end the war; it gave one hope for the future. Now, however, most Americans don’t much care that we continue to be embroiled in another war for which there was no justification, that we kill innocent civilians half-way around the world with the twitch of a computer joystick, or that we keep locked up for years hundreds of people who have no recourse to justice.
Of course, much of my work doesn’t touch on any of that, but it does deal with economic issues: the story of the Rust Belt is one of continuing decline, with no hope in sight. The last two decades have seen the gap between the richest Americans and the rest of us grow to a degree rarely found in even the most corrupt banana republic, but we’re not doing anything about it. The choices people make at the ballot box suggest that they either don’t believe economic inequality is a problem, or they don’t understand what they can do about it, or perhaps they just don’t care.
Ambridge, PA 2010
When you venture into these areas amongst the Rust Belt, how do you feel?
I love these places, despite the despair that they embody. There is a richness and beauty to these factory towns, and a tenacious, resilient, generosity in their inhabitants that breaks my heart. That’s why I try to avoid (not always successfully) making photographs of merely abandoned or boarded-up buildings. I have nothing but contempt for the legions of “ruin porn” photographers, those guys who parachute into our Rust Belt towns to make melodramatic pictures of the most obvious decay, then retreat to the safety of their studios to bloviate about the metaphorical meaning of their oeuvre. For all the dilapidation that you can see in my pictures, what I am really looking for is some manifestation of the human spirit that gives comfort, a glimmer of beauty, a hint of humor, a sign of hope.
Your series The New Heartland seems to convey the homogenization of a culture. Was that part of your intent?
As I said earlier, my original motivation was political but, as is almost always the case, the pictures evolved into something else. I set out to see where Republican voters lived and discovered that they all aspire to live in the same place: a homogenous, sanitized, artificial environment from which all the messiness of reality—history, economic inequality, racial and cultural distinctions, political differences, moral ambiguities—has been relentlessly eradicated. The most frightening discovery I made was what the retail industry calls “lifestyle centers.” These are shopping malls designed to look like towns, with all the superficial trappings of an idealized, imaginary version of small-town America. They have bandstands and bicycle racks (but no bicycles) and fountains and outdoor tables, but everything is artificial, both in terms of materials—all that stone is really extruded foam—and in terms of cultural and historical references. They have only one purpose: shopping, the consumption of material goods. They might contain a token bookstore but the population of these fake towns is better acquainted with the collected works of J. Crew than with the authors whose names adorn the frieze above Barnes and Noble.
Barnes & Noble, Columbus, OH 2007
Could you give our readers a brief description of your process and favored gear?
For most of my career I’ve used a medium format roll film camera, a Fuji GW690 that I bought in 1984. I almost always use the camera hand-held, conditions permitting. For some of the lifestyle center photos I used a Horseman VH field camera with a 6x9cm back and a 90mm lens, i.e. exactly the same setup as the Fuji but with the addition of rise and fall of the front standard; of course this camera was always on a tripod (Gitzo carbon fiber). My Gulf Coast pictures were made with a Fuji GX617 with a 90mm lens, which is pretty much the equivalent of making two side-by-side shots with the GW690.
All of the black and white pictures were shot on Kodak Tri-X rated more or less in the range of 100-200 ISO and developed in D-76 1:1. The prints are on Ilford Multigrade FB IV paper, printed with an Aristo variable contrast cold-light head. The other details are pretty standard: Sprint developer and other chemicals, selenium toner for archival preservation, etc.
The New Heartland color work was shot on Fuji 400-speed film, first NPH and then its successor, Pro-H. I scanned the negatives on a Hasselblad 343 scanner, made corrections in Photoshop CS3, and printed them on an Epson 9800 inkjet printer on Hahnemuehle Fine Art Baryta paper.
My most recent pictures—the Post-industrial Rust Belt and later projects—are made with a Leica M9 digital camera with a 40mm lens that has almost exactly the same angle of view as the Fuji GW690. Basically, I’ve been using the same lens, in terms of what it sees, for almost forty years. I used to process the RAW files in Raw Developer but I have recently switched to Lightroom 4, which finally caught up to the file quality that I was getting from RAW Developer. Prints are on the 9800 but on Epson Exhibition Fiber paper.
Madison, IN 1997
Is there anything you’re currently working on that you’d like to mention?
While photographing the post-industrial Rust Belt I became aware that I had made many of the photos along the Lincoln Highway. I figured this out because I had a student who was doing a project on the Lincoln Highway and we often had pictures of the same subjects. When I finally found out what the Lincoln Highway was, and that it crossed the country from Times Square in Manhattan to the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco, I thought it was the ideal geographical framework to photograph a kind of cross-section of America. Of course, there have been plenty of very good photography books about the Lincoln Highway, but most of those show various aspects of nostalgia: remnants of the original highway, old gas stations, archaic motels signs, and other artifacts of roadside Americana. My emphasis is on contrasting economic conditions. The Lincoln Highway runs through some of the poorest cities in America—Newark, Trenton, and Camden, New Jersey, various mill towns in the Rust Belt, dirt-poor one-horse towns in the western desert—and through some of the wealthiest areas, such as Princeton, New Jersey, Philadelphia’s Main Line, and the outer edges of Silicon Valley. In other words, it passes by the homes of the one percent as well as the ninety-nine percent. I don’t really think that my pictures are going to change anyone’s mind or make much of a difference, but all I can do as a photographer is call attention to the things that I think matter.
Where is the best place for our readers to find your work?
Amazon.com—I think in terms of book projects, even if not every project has become a book (yet), so the best way to see my work is in the books. Cleveland and Industrial Perspective are still in print and you can usually pick up the paperback edition of Along the Ohio pretty cheaply. And, if things go according to plan, The New Heartland will be out in about a year.
I frequently make photographs that are full of small, subtle details that complicate the picture’s meaning; you can’t see those details in a 600-pixel wide jpeg. Still, I do have a website that has a representative sampling of various projects that I’ve done over the past few decades.
A better way to see the pictures is, of course, to see actual prints. I have work at the Sasha Wolf Gallery in New York City but she recently lost her lease and is still looking for a new space. If you’re in New York and Sasha is in her new location, you’ll be able to see prints there. I’m also represented by the Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland and by Lee Marks Fine Arts in Shelbyville, Indiana. Lee doesn’t have a gallery but she exhibits at a lot of photo fairs, including AIPAD in New York every spring. And if you’re in Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago has a selection of my New Heartland prints in their Midwest Photographers Project Collection.
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