Contemporary postindustrial ruin photography is a photographic genre with historical depth, cultural significance, and aesthetic variety. Postindustrial ruin photographs not only repurpose abandoned places with new symbolic meanings, but also situate forgotten places in a discourse about the cultural meaning of the deindustrialization period. In this chapter, I focus on the city of Cleveland and Andrew Borowiec’s photographic collection Cleveland: The Flats, the Mill, and the Hills (2008) in order to discuss the cultural meaning and symbolism of postindustrial ruins. Borowiec’s photographs subvert the aestheticism that ruin porn critique has expressed (i.e. that ruin photography is merely sensational and exploitative) and help to outline the historic depth of industrial photography, offering a counter-narrative to nostalgic representations of the industrial past.
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The pioneer of postindustrial photography is Camilo J. Vergara. He has started to documented postindustrial places of demolition, ruin, and reconstruction in cities like Detroit, Camden, Gary, Chicago, and Newark in the 1970s. He has published his documentary work on changing American cities in two seminal books, The New American Ghetto (1995) and American Ruins (1999). Borowiec’s photographic studies of Cleveland are therefore part of a broad archival process about American ruin and urban postindustrialism.
In this respect, Borowiec’s photography links to a shift in research which defines the process of deindustrialization not just in economic terms, but looks at the social and cultural legacies of industry (cf. Cowie and Heathcott 2003; High 2007; Mah 2012).
The concentration of businesses and cultural institutions within selected parts of the city (such as Downtown, University Circle, and the Flats) left other inner city areas vulnerable to rapid urban decline or destruction, mostly at the cost of the city’s poor population. Old neighbourhoods were frequently cleared for business reinvestments; or the construction of highways. The general influence of the business community on political decision-making in the city has been a heated issue of local political debate (cf. Gaffikin and Morrissey 158–164).
The representation of photographs in books can develop a particular complexity and narrative scheme with each new photograph on the single book page adding to a broader story (cf. Parr and Badger 2004). Borowiec’s combination of photographs achieves such a potent combination; a unity among the images that creates a counter-narrative to nostalgic representations of the industrial past.
One could further argue that in addition to the economic aspect of Cleveland’s industrial legacy, Borowiec also juxtaposes industrial spaces with natural landscapes in photographs like “Remnants of an oil refinery, Kingsbury Run, 2004” in order to emphasize the environmental legacy of brownfields in postindustrial cities. Lee Friedlander’s photographic aesthetic of the late seventies seems to serve as a model for that. Lee Friedlander has photographed the industrial heartland in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Commissioned by the Akron Museum of Art, Friedlander travelled throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania and took images of the different industries, small towns, and inside factories. He shows both the ecological and economic destructive potential of industry. His photographs were published as a book entitled Factory Valleys in 1982.
After the collapse of the industry in the eighties, two steel mills remained in the city. They were owned by LTV steel and were profitable throughout the 1990s, but had to close in 2001. In 2002, the International Steel Group (ISG) bought LTV Steel and reopened parts of its Cleveland Works. ISG was subsequently acquired by Mittal Steel in 2005. The company merged with Arcelor in 2006. ArcelorMittal operates a modern integrated steel mill in Cleveland today (cf. https://case.edu/ech/articles/m/mittal-steel-usa/).