writings blog

From Wall to Main / Niko J. Kallianiotis

In November of 1935 Walker Evans made a photograph about Bethlehem titled “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania”. A large cement cross sits in the foreground overlooking a perfectly composed scene of American life and industry. A cemetery competes with brick homes and porches that are knitted together in a plateau, fluctuating between past and present. Just when your eyes comprehend the few inches of greenery, you look up only to see a changing landscape of hard factory life. Like any brilliant photograph, it speaks in a dichotomy of quiet and busy; charging rapidly towards the future yet relentlessly becoming a prophecy of the uncertain. The Bethlehem Steel Company at times swelled to about 300,000 jobs nationally and about 30,000 at the Bethlehem location, about half the population of the city. The mill closed and parts of it have been turned into a casino and boutiques. I have been thinking about this photograph for a very long time and visited the exact location and town several times. It’s always a unique and precious experience; understanding history, understanding America, or at least try to.

That particular theme and genre are considered old and conventional in today’s photographic standards. It is not considered innovative enough; it’s been done before. For whatever it’s worth, that theme, in one way or another, determined the outcome of this year’s presidential election. Several political commentators, and writers on photography, tried in various forms to explain the outcome, both in terms of the shocking election results and in terms of the photography. On occasion, it was suggested that photojournalism failed to accurately represent the communities, which influenced the outcome of the election, and it was suggested that in the future photographers should concentrate more on this particular theme with America at its core base. I disagree; photojournalism and photography have not failed. The overall media and photography community as we know it has. There is an abundance of community photographers who work in a documentary style and regularly make projects regarding the socioeconomic situations in areas of decline. But, with few exceptions, we rarely saw those projects. Instead, what we saw were photographs produced by “elite” visual storytellers of the mainstream media organizations and agencies, working under the pressure of deadlines and particular demands. Oftentimes the work lacked empathy and understanding which was the result of a disengaged approach and lack of understanding of a particular region. The intention of this essay is not to judge or devalue their work, but to raise questions about the photography world as a whole. I have utter respect for photojournalists and their service and I was honored to have started my photographic journey in the newsroom.

©Walker Evans, “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania” 1935

©Walker Evans, “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania” 1935

One example that refers to the above statement is the photographic coverage of the 2016 NRA National Convention. If you lived outside the United States with no access to the Internet and were suddenly exposed to those particular images, you would never, ever visit this country out of fear from the people that you might have to confront. Regardless of your position about guns, your political affiliation and the like, the images represented the people in a grotesque way, making them mere caricatures.

As Gary Winogrand once succinctly said, “I am a student of America”. A abide with that statement and it represents me completely, both as an America Citizen but as an immigrant. I was not born in this country I now call home, but I have come to love it with the same passion and dedication as my native country. I have experienced but most importantly learned about the culture, the people, as well as the topography of this great land and in particular of my state of Pennsylvania, otherwise known, as “Trump Country”, and that assessment was the first and last mistake. There is no such a thing as Trump Country or Hilary Country, it is all fiction. For my personal project, I’ve been traveling through towns and cities across the state of Pennsylvania; I have driven over ten thousand miles in the last two years and by no means am I done. The Keystone State, once a prosperous and vibrant region where the notion of small town values and sustainable small businesses thrived under the sheltered wings of American Industry, has now become an American Dream yet to be realized. The disconnect between metro and rural America as well as its issues, values and aspirations is beyond comprehension; but we all, for the most part, assume to be aware of the problem, but in reality we don’t. Some, are more familiar with what is happening in other parts of the world than what is happening in small town America.

As an immigrant and naturalized citizen I had always perceived the United States differently, mostly from the big screen Hollywood experience and the adventures of “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”. Through the last two decades, as I grew both as a person and also a photographer (at least I hope I did), that fiction remained just that, fiction. The Big Apple was my initial experience with the Unites States. Since then, I have lived and worked as a photojournalist on and off for about fifteen years, and as my understanding of those communities grew, so did my uncertainty as to what the future about these places might bring. I was honored to meet unique people and listen to their stories and their struggles to make ends meet. That was years ago in New York State, Ohio, Pennsylvania but also for the last two years preceding the recent election the experience and feeling was enhanced. Many leaders came and went but nothing changed for those areas and most likely nothing will. But through listening and experiencing and above all, feeling, you can predict a little more accurately. The vibe was there, the people were hungry for “change” — the election results was just the cherry on the pie of what was cooking for years, and the unthinkable became a reality and a nightmare, depending on your political affiliation. I was personally not shocked, and I was really surprised that some were. Over and over again in conversations with friends and colleagues I raised the concern that if the tone of the coverage towards “Trump Country” doesn’t change, there will be….oh well.

Photography and society are one and the same and Walker Evans with the “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania”, photograph commented on that era but also predicted the future, but above all, he experienced, listened, and understood. Unfortunately for the photographic community the particular genre of photography was considered, before the election campaign trails were on their way, conventional and cliché, but in an instant the theme became mainstream. Now photographers and students with the “After” and “isms” in hand, will frantically travel in scores to rural America, to create the new “contemporary” document, and “investigate” in digital pixels or silver halides the forgotten America; some will understand, some wont.

by Niko J Kallianiotis