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From Rust to Dust: A present-day photograph remembers the past

"Steelworker's Houses," by Craig Nedrow, is the December 2020 Open Exhibit Best-in-Show Award winner.

by Haven Ashley


Steelworkers’ Houses, the best-in-show winning photograph by Craig Nedrow, is a lesson in contrast, in tonal range and composition, from the sharp diagonal rooflines to the languid sloping road, the downy plume of steam, to the taut power lines. With nuances of charcoal, pewter, obsidian; salt, bone, cotton—Nedrow’s photograph is anything but black and white. 

The photographer shared that on the morning the photo was taken, he had considered staying in. “But I decided breakfast could wait.” He could not resist the pull of the old steel mill, one of the last functioning mills in the United States. It had brought him all the way to the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One can imagine the austere presence of the immense mill on that clear winter morning. The tang of cold metal and the numbing breath of exhaust. “The light was so good. It was a lot of luck. That’s kinda the way it goes with photography, you gotta have a little luck,” Nedrow commented. 

Steelworkers’ Houses’ romantic vision of industry brings to mind the approach of the Regionalist painters, especially Thomas Hart Benton, whose work celebrated Americans on the job. The drama and dynamism of an economic landscape transformed by steel and steam were seen through Benton’s eyes as a subject worthy of the same emotive, monumental styling of a Hollywood epic. 


“Instruments of Power,” a panel from the Thomas Hart Benton mural “America Today, 1930–31”


Benton and his contemporaries captured Americans on the move, chronicling the reality of societal change, the cost of laborers turning earth into gold—whether it be gleaming kernels of corn from the Plains or molten iron ore from the Northeast. At times gritty, other times glamorous, hard work was always glorified by the Regionalists as the American way of life. 


“Changing West,” a panel from the Thomas Hart Benton mural “America Today, 1930–31”


Decades later, Nedrow’s photograph shows an America that has moved on. From company town to ghost town, the aftermath of automation is a haunting scene. “People are surprised that it’s a modern-day image,” Nedrow said, remarking on the image’s timeless quality, “It’s a challenge to take a photo that looks like it is from fifty years ago.” The artist has traveled the country searching for such industrial sites—places with the patina of age, but still producing goods. “I was born in the rust belt—Ohio—and I’ve always been drawn to old machinery and structures. I don’t go to these sites with the intent of showing how rundown or depressed some areas are or appear to be. I go mostly because they are interesting images. I’m not trying to make a statement or have a political message. I guess I’m just kind of a romantic.”  


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