For over three decades I’ve photographed the social landscape of the Rust Belt, America’s vast industrial heartland, which extends from upstate New York to the shores of Lake Michigan in the west and into Appalachia south of the Ohio River. The region has been in steady decline since the 1980s, when the industries began closing. The Great Recession was especially hard for Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, where I made these photographs. Entire blocks of downtowns were boarded up, factories were dismantled, and houses were abandoned to disintegration. People accustomed to a life of hard work lost their jobs, their homes, and their place in the world.
I think that my photographs are, in part, about the specific identity of a landscape — its topography, its architecture, its history, and the arrangement and decoration of back yards. At the same time, I try to make pictures whose details serve as clues to understanding the values, aspirations, hopes, and dreams of the people who live in that landscape. And setting aside geographical differences, the circumstances of the post-industrial Rust Belt reflect an increasingly ubiquitous inequality found throughout 21st-Century America, where most people aren’t as well off as they used to be, or as they would like to be.
My work in the Rust Belt isn’t finished. Even though the region’s inhabitants were instrumental in electing Donald Trump, their situation under his presidency is inevitably going to get worse. Despite campaign promises, jobs in the coal mines and steel mills are not coming back.
Andrew Borowiec, New York City and Akron, Ohio
Two years ago, I found myself living in the middle of Bergen County and struggling to make sense of it.
Bergen County is the most populous county in New Jersey, the most densely-populated state in the United States. Located in the northeastern corner of the state, Bergen County is part of the New York City Metropolitan Area (unless you’re a New Yorker), and is situated directly across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan.
It’s a strange place — the county has the strictest blue laws in the country (all non-essential commerce is banned on Sunday), no one uses their turn signals, and most people commute into New York City. Bergen county is home to the town of Paramus, the largest shopping destination in the country. Paramus’ zip code (07652) generates over five billion dollars in annual retail sales, even though all of the stores are closed on Sunday.
— Andrew Frost, Teaneck, New Jersey, USA
Deindustrialisation is a process of social and economic change caused by the removal or reduction of industrial capacity or activity in a country or region.
For most of the 20th century, Fleetwood was a prominent deep-sea fishing port, but, since the 1970s, the fishing industry has declined precipitously and the town has undergone economic difficulties. I am very interested in the way this has affected the landscape and the area.
The Port of Fleetwood provided ro-ro (roll on-roll off) traffic to and from Northern Ireland and was a busy fishing port for many years. The port played a significant role in enhancing the connectivity of the wider region and the movement of freight, as well as providing jobs. Aspirations to revive this role remain, so operational areas at the port are protected and safeguarded with fences and barbed wire.
Questions of land use, industry and the effect of the decline on the economy, form the basis of the enquiry. The main concept is to represent the effects of deindustrialisation on a specific place and to show how this affects the political landscape.
— Andrew Mellor, Lancashire, England
“Why did you come to Slovakia?” is a question I have been asked many times over the last 10 years. It is a question that falls into two distinct categories. Firstly as a general inquiry in to what I am doing here for work. Secondly it can be read as a statement of disbelief. What are you doing in Slovakia when you could be in London or anywhere in the West? Rather than attempt to illustrate this sense of disbelief I chose to look for signs, people and situations in an attempt to answer the question.
The simple pleasures that can be found in unfamiliar surroundings. The escape from what is perceived for the fulfilling discovery of something new. It led me to paraphrase the words of William Least Heat Moon from his inspirational book Blue Highways: “No place in theory, is boring itself. Boredom lies only with ones limited perception and ones failure to explore deeply enough.”
Andrew Hillard, Bratislava, Slovakia
Beside the Seaside explores the complex relationship between time and place. In winter, seaside resorts lie dormant and quiet: ghost towns haunted by nature. Only echoes of the vibrant summer past remain, bringing promise and hope for summers to come. My photographs try to capture this feeling and convey the quiet and lonely beauty of the places I visit. I use film and hand print my own photographs. This allows me to stay connected to the whole photographic process.
— Andrew G. Fisher, Liverpool, United Kingdom
Haboob, by Andrew Phelps
One of Andrew Phelps’s most powerful subjects in his new book, Haboob, is Nothing.
Haboob documents the effect of the economic downturn on Phelps’s hometown of Higley, Arizona. The book’s title is the Arabic name for the seasonal desert winds that sweep through the region.
One of the Nothing photos shows the wonderfully-named intersection of Buckaroo Trail and Liberty Lane. The sign for Liberty Lane is slightly bent. The remarkable thing about the intersection is that there are no houses or buildings of any kind there. In the distance, we see upscale homes, but at Buckaroo and Liberty there’s nothing.
Another Nothing photograph seems to riff on Ansel Adams’s famous shot of a moonrise in Hernandez, New Mexico. Adams filled the middle ground with a small church and gravestones — signs of the life and death of a community. But Phelps’s moon rises over nothing — a pole and road sign in the foreground, bare desert stretching through the middle ground, toward a tiny distant line of green.
Many of Phelps’s photos document loss: a ruined palm tree, a fountain sitting in the middle of a large field of gravel. Other pictures show confusion: paint color swatches scattered on the ground, iron mustangs on a gate to nowhere, church signs and political signs in a desolate stretch of road.
Haboob is a beautiful and grim meditation on emptiness and destruction. The book is published by Kehrer Verlag.
— Willson Cummer
An important part of my childhood in Arizona was the camping trips we would take. In America, especially in the west, one can simply put on a back-pack, walk into the wilderness, catch a fish, build a fire and sleep on the ground. A wilderness experience had much to do with adventure: being challenged, scared and unsettled.
Upon moving to Europe in the late 80‘s, I quickly realized that the wilderness in Europe has been filtered through centuries of history and tradition and that the camping culture is far from the unpredictable and direct exchange with nature as it was in my childhood. The world of the camper is one of comfort, predictability, and a desperate attempt at a home away from home; the wilderness is avoided at all costs.
While people may long for the simple, carefree life in the midst of nature, they evidently find it impossible to live easily without comfort, safety and cleanliness. It is the search for a “true, wilderness experience,” caught between the urge to be free and the need for security.
— Andrew Phelps
The New Heartland is a photographic investigation of Ohio’s landscape that reflects ongoing changes in American values, cultural attitudes, and economic conditions at the dawn of the 21st Century.
I began this body of work in response to the 2004 presidential election. Over the course of a long and depressing day working as a poll-watcher, I thought about the extent to which the Midwest had changed during the two decades that I had lived here. That election revealed deep divisions among America’s citizens that were not only manifest in choices made at the ballot box, but also visible in the landscape.
The rolling farmlands and idyllic small towns that used to define our heartland are rapidly giving way to vast developments of mini-mansions and shopping “villages” designed to evoke an imagined era of luxurious consumerism. At the same time, traditional regional characteristics are becoming effaced by a ubiquitous global culture of material consumption — in the new heartland you can buy a quick fix of trendy espresso even out among the cornfields.
— Andrew Borowiec