Russell Marshall’s photography reflects a life spent living among the factory workers and street characters in his long-time home of Detroit, MI. One can sense a present empathy in his depictions of lone individuals walking the city streets and an intimate familiarity with expressionistic industrial scenes. It’s not difficult to sense that Marshall did more than dip his toe into that existence, but that he lived and worked in the midst of it.
Russell’s new book, This Working Life, is a tribute to the men and women, whose blue collar ethic continues to inspire his work. –RF
Delray Man, Detroit, Michigan
What drew you to photography?
Our family photo album was probably my first significant exposure to photography. Our family box camera seemed to always materialize during holidays, when relatives visited and other family events. My mother was the family documenter [sic]. When relatives came, the photo album would eventually be brought out. We would once again peruse, not only recent additions, but familiar vintage snapshots of uncles and aunts and grandparents and their long deceased siblings pictured on the streets and porches and farm fields of our western Pennsylvania homeland. I like to think that, on some level, at an early age, it was impressed upon me that it was important to keep the memories of these miners, steelworkers and farmers alive and I think the album pictures did just that. When we went back home to South Fork every year, it was the thing to do to have our pictures taken on the day we left to come back. Posing for a picture in front of Dad’s ‘37 Chevy or his ‘47 Dodge or ‘57 Ford would be the indisputable evidence that we were indeed there on that day before the turnpike crash that killed us all on the way home to Detroit, if that were ever to happen. But it never did and the pictures still ended up in every family photo album. At 12 or 13, I became the family documenter [sic], but not with that purpose in mind. I took pictures with my own box camera (a Scout 120), because it was fun to get the little snapshot prints back from the drugstore the next week and to re-live the experience and say, “Yeah, here is proof that I was there at that particular time and took these and they ‘came out’ and they don’t look too bad.” I must have been serious from the start, because I started keeping notes and recording every exposure setting. I was soon taking pictures of my friends and around the neighborhood.
LTV Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio
Where did you grow up and how influential was your upbringing?
Growing up in a federal housing project in a working class neighborhood in Detroit provided a unique perspective to a young boy in the 1940′s and ‘50′s. With activities of the big 3 auto companies always in the news, which could affect most of my relatives and neighbors, including my father who worked on the Chrysler DeSoto plant assembly line, I was conscious of where I was in this life – where I fit in. I accepted that and didn’t dream to be anywhere else. At family get togethers, my father and his four brothers, three sisters and their offspring talked and argued late into the night about their jobs at Chrysler, Ford and Great Lakes Steel. During model changeover lay-offs and strikes, I accompanied my father several times to the plant gate or the unemployment office to pick up his checks. My grandfather, whom I idolized, regaled me with his stories of working in the South Fork coal mines for 55 years. As a boy of 14, he witnessed the beginnings of the damn break at the privately owned lake above South Fork that resulted in the disastrous 1889 Johnstown Flood. I also remember one night in 1955 gazing down awe struck from a high hill over-looking Johnstown and the Bethlehem Steel Mills. The golden yellow glow from the slag dumps lit up the sky and threw long, deep shadows into the adjacent neighborhood. I could even hear the clanks of the distant rail cars and the piercing shrills of the factory whistles penetrating the dark. I was 15 years old and proudly knew that the huge railroad engine hauling the next load of slag from the mill was being powered down the track by my Uncle Harry – father to Cousins Harry, Jr., future Bethlehem Steel electrician and Don, future Ford Motor Company civil engineer.
Mercury Man, Detroit, Michigan Much of your work is b&w depictions of mills and the people who work in them, pool halls and other blue collar aspects of the American culture. What is it that draws you to those subjects?
I’m drawn to those subjects because that’s what I know. That’s where I live. I exist and move around in that culture. The advice to photographers and also writers has always been to shoot and write what you know. For years and years I carried a camera with me all the time. On trips, out on the streets and hanging out with my buddies. Everywhere. I knew early on and every photographer remembers those shots that are forever lost for lack of a camera at the ready.
In the time that you have been actively documenting the culture of the Factory Belt, huge changes have taken place. What are your personal feelings about what has transpired?
Sadness about the inevitability and senselessness of loss.
Two City Men, Detroit, Michigan
At any point, as these changes were happening to the areas and subjects you were used to photographing, did you feel like you had become not only a photographer, but a messenger?
I never felt like I was on any particular mission to reinforce my own political agenda in my work. At the time I was photographing the laborers in the plants, I was a paid free-lancer for the labor union publications, which supported their political agenda. Given my background, I was certainly in compassion and identified with the workers’ plight — sub-standard working conditions, health issues, job loss and plant closings. But I was never asked to distort the truth of my observations. My photographs were used to illustrate union published articles for the union membership readers. And yes, they were, for the most part, biased against the greed of the corporate “bosses” and slanted sometimes with low level expressions of demagoguery. You know – us against them. I didn’t really care and had no control over how they used my photographs. But I retained all the negatives and the publishing rights. And I knew and sensed over time that these jobs and these workers and these factories would someday be gone; replaced by something or nothing. It wasn’t lost on me that I had this opportunity to document and preserve the fact that these workers did exist at this time and in this place. Like my coal mining, steel making relatives in our photo album.
Punch Out, GM Fisher Body, Detroit, Michigan
Some of your industrial work seems influenced by German expressionism. Is that, at all, accurate?
From what I know about German expressionism, I think you’re right – in a way. I never really thought about my stuff like that. I mean, to deliberately and consciously set out to approach a certain subject to make it look like German expressionism never occurred to me. But I was and am still very drawn to “film noir” which includes elements of German expressionism. If German expressionism in still photography is defined in part as having visual attributes of low-key lighting and unbalanced wide angle compositions, great blocks of dense shapes, shadows contrasted with the light and silhouetted lone figures and moods of doom and estrangement, then I guess that is what it is.
Ambassador Bridge and Zug Island, Detroit, Michigan
Who and what have been influential to you and your work?
I’ve been influenced by many of the great street, documentary and photojournalist photographers; W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Essay, Robert Frank’s The Americans, William Kline’s New York streets, August Sander and Andre Kertesz and Garry Winogrand to name a few. I just recently discovered the little known Luke Swank, who photographed the steel mills around Johnstown and Pittsburgh in the 1930′s. David Plowden was a huge influence when I decided to document the small towns in the Thumb area of Michigan with my square format Mamiya. Also by a number of writers including Kerourac, poet Philip Levine, Hemingway and artists Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, Martin Lewis, L.S. Lowry and Edvard Munch, as well as Van Gogh and Lautrec. And by certain forlorn, downbeat, moody jazz pieces. The films of Orson Welles, the Hustler and 1940-50 b&w noir gangster films. I know – it seems pretty grim.
Plaza Billiards, Detroit, Michigan
Could you discuss your preferred gear, as in cameras, film, etc.?
I’ve always used Nikon F bodies and lenses. I acquired a couple of Olympus OM1n bodies and 3 lenses a few years ago and use them occasionally. I also have a Leica M4 that doesn’t get much use. I used my Mamiya 330 extensively in the mid 1980′s. The slow pace working with the square format was an eye-opening revelation at the time coming from motorized Nikons.
Tri-X and Plus-X 35mm and Verichrome Pan 120. Developers are D76, Microdol X, FG7, Rodinal. My enlarger is an Omega Pro Lab D5. Papers were Agfa MCC and now Ilford WT, both fiber based double weight. Some brown toning. I scan prints for my web site, email, etc. I don’t use my digital camera for anything I consider important. No ink jet prints for exhibition.
Would you like to mention anything you’re currently working on?
Right now my shooting activities are temporarily on hold. I just recently got my darkroom up and running after a move. I’ll be printing negatives from my files that have never been printed, which will supplement existing on-going projects. I spent the previous year putting together my book, This Working Life. I’m now interested in self-publishing more books of my work.
Welder, Acorn Iron Works, Detroit, Michigan
Where is the best place to find your work?
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