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The Dignity of Labor

Photographer J.M. Giordano Captures The Human Resilience Of Steelworkers As Life They Once Knew Passes Them By

Frank Klein

By Charles Cohen | Posted 12/13/2006

Stainless: Families of Steel

Through Dec. 30 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson

The most striking aspect of J.M. Giordano's photography exhibit at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, Stainless: Families of Steel, is what's missing in his images of Bethlehem Steel's workers at Sparrows Point. Other than the two photographs of the blast furnace, Giordano passed on the standard steel-making fare. No photos of glowing I-beams being muscled through the rollers or of gangs of workers taking lunch in the giant bays of the blast furnace. Instead, Giordano chose to tell the story of the contemporary steelworker through the squints of eyes and lines in faces, empty chairs, and, in one case, feet with toenails in bad need of a trim.

Ten or five years ago, putting on a show about steelworkers without glowing ingots would be like doing a show about coal miners without dirt on their faces. But that's precisely the point that Giordano, 34, is trying to hammer home. Steel-making as a Baltimore institution is dead--and that's saying something, considering that in the 1950s Sparrows Point was home to the world's largest steel mill.

Giordano's larger-than-life portraits captures what happens when a steady, common job, like steelworking, suddenly finds itself on the fringe, aged, and staring down its own mortality. It's not just the Sparrows Point mill, which started in 1890 and grew to employ 35,000 workers at its height in the 1959, has trickled down to a facility, now owned by Mittal Steel/ISG International Steel Group, which bought the plant in 2005, that employs about 2,500 people. But the time when generations could find good middle-class wages through hard labor instead of a college degree is gone, making retired Sparrows Point steelworkers living anomalies.

Trying to capture this human condition in a series of portraits and still lifes is ungainly ambitious but something worth capturing. "It goes all over--race, women's rights, the response to the global economy, community, family," says Bill Barry, director of Labor Studies at the Community College of Baltimore County-Dundalk. "I call Bethlehem Steel a civilization." Barry, who oversees the Beth Steel oral-history project (available at www.sparrowspointsteelworkers.com), collaborated with Giordano and provided the wall text accompanying his photos.

Even with the words and images, the exhibition doesn't tell a story as much as it offers a trail of clues. To circle the gallery is to gather visual artifacts in a void of narrative. For example, there's the picture of Lee Douglass, an African-American man, and the accompanying text about the 1967 demonstration he led at Beth Steel headquarters in Bethlehem, Pa., only to be barred from bathrooms at the mills. The wall text quotes Douglass: "Now the next word I sent up there was that if you do not open up a facility for us to use the restroom, we will start urinating in your green grass."

You can only surmise what the protest was about, and there's no follow-up about the grass. The image doesn't clarify, for example, that Douglass and other protesters were pushing for blacks and other minorities to have a fair shot at better-paying jobs at the plant. According to Barry, at the time minorities were given unskilled grunt work and didn't have much of a chance to earn a spot as, say, a crane operator. They had to be content with being riggers. It wasn't until a 1974 consent decree that higher-paying jobs opened up for everyone.

Giordano's large-scale, 40-by-30-inch digital prints loom over viewers, but the portraits exude a claustrophobic vibe. There's the giant shot of man with his years of service, "1952-'96," emblazoned on a baseball hat, standing, like a Greyhound Bus refugee, with a jacket drooping off his shoulder. There's Chuck Swearingen, with his dog Snoopy, standing in his lily pad of a garden.

"The people are crumbling along with the buildings," says Giordano, from a booth at the Laughing Pint, a refurbished old East Baltimore corner bar. With his broad shoulders and averting eyes, Giordano could be cast as a steelworker himself. He speaks in a tone that suggests he has mulled over the situation of his subjects long and hard, and he doesn't hide his cynicism, although he tempers it with self-effacing humor.

"You're watching the buildings being torn down and their lifestyle is the same way," he says. "It's a really interesting juxtaposition."

This is about as clinical as Giordano gets in this conversation. Rather, the photographer/reporter for The Dundalk Eagle talks about finding inspiration in the steelworkers when he covered the sale of Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant in 2003. He encountered workers who had spent decades at the plant, many risking their lives and seeing co-workers killed and maimed, only to watch their pensions emasculated by penny-pinching CEOs and a weakened union.

"I looked at these guys and women . . . retirees were getting fucked," he says. "I mean fucked. People don't understand--I don't know if nobody cares or what--but it was like a promise that they were going to be taken care of in their old age."

Giordano comes by his empathy honestly. As he puts it, he's not a New York photographer hired by Esquire to do a photo essay on steelworkers. Giordano grew up in Dundalk. His grandfather worked at Eastern Stainless, a defunct small mill on Eastern Avenue, which provided the stainless steel for St. Louis' Gateway Arch. His grandmother always preached the virtues of the union, which took care of her after her husband died. But it took some years abroad to give Giordano an outsider's cynicism for his hometown. He shot photos of the Korean countryside while stationed overseas with the U.S. Army from 1991 to '92, and he spent 1997 to '01 as an expatriate writer in Prague. He attained some success when he received a Lorian Hemingway Short Story award in 2001 and was published in After Hours, a Chicago literary biannual.

When he got back to the states in 2001, though, his passion for writing felt misspent. "We're such a visual society," Giordano explains, saying that he feels literature is "pretty much dead."

"I was almost like a junkie," he says of his turn toward a visual vocabulary. "I had to get a camera and record stuff."

Along his Dundalk Eagle career path of grip-and-grins, parades, and groundbreaking ceremonies, he found himself at a 2004 Beth Steel meeting where he overheard a miserable conversation between friends about their retirement. "It was that . . . that really got the ball rolling for this series," Giordano says.

Giordano realized he was witnessing a piece of history unfolding quietly undetected. Two years on, he's still shooting steelworker portraits. Fortunately, Barry had already embarked on his oral-history project, gathering stories and photos of ex-steelworkers, and the CCBC professor simply turned over a list of names for Giordano to contact.

Now came the hard part. Inspired by Alec Soth's Sleeping by the Mississippi project, a series of portraits in down-home and down-and-out settings, Giordano wanted to pick up the steelworker story where it dead-ends: He wanted to capture them in their homes as the world passes them by. Being from the area and having the Eagle as a calling card, Giordano would do his house calls and let the photo practically set itself in front of his eyes. Still, what he found surprised him. Instead of steelworkers' grit, he got a softness, beaten down on the edges perhaps, but proud at its core.

"From house to house I was waiting for someone to explode on me, and they never did," Giordano says. "They were very dignified, proud people. They still toe the party line--at least publicly anyway."

In turn, Barry says he was surprised with Giordano's portrayal of steelworkers. Barry says he was used to seeing them in gritty black-and-white shots. "He got this guy with an American flag and a kitten on his lap," he says. "What a great vision of middle America that, unfortunately, has passed."

Even after taking the time to amass the work, which can also be viewed at www.jmgiordano.com, Giordano finds himself frustrated and overwhelmed by the disappearance of this way of life. After all, talking 30 years ago about Beth Steel closing would be akin to predicting today the doom of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Giordano hopes to have his portraits published as a coffee-table book, but he wonders if the world cares. Even the steelworkers themselves are surprised that anyone is gathering up their stories. "Without exception people are so appreciative that people are taking the time to record what they've done," Barry says. They say, "`What is so special about me? I didn't do anything great.'"

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