ANDREW BOROWIEC. 30 YEARS IN THE RUST BELT
by Thieu Riemen



© Andrew Borowiec, Mingo Junction, Ohio, 2015, from the series 'Post-industrial Rust Belt'

You have photographed America’s changing industrial and post-industrial landscape for over three decades. Where did it all started?

Andrew Borowiec (AB) I’m primarily interested in the social landscape, in places that have been shaped by human presence. I try to make photographs that tell a landscape’s story in all its depth and complexity—that show something of its history and of the economic and cultural circumstances of the people who live there. At the same time, I want my pictures to convey the experience of being in a particular place from an individual perspective: what it looks like to the person on the street, rather than from some commanding, impersonal vantage point. Ideally, my photos convey a lot of information. They are packed with details that might not be apparent at first, but that ultimately inform, complicate, and sometimes subvert the picture’s meaning.

It all started when I was in high school in Switzerland. I thought I wanted to be a zoologist, so I took a couple of night classes to learn how to photograph animals. I set up a darkroom in our air raid shelter and spent hours in the woods taking pictures of birds and small mammals. Then, on a school trip to Florence, I made some pictures that weren’t like anything I had seen before, such as a shot in a Medieval cloister of four white men in dark suits carrying a coffin past a white-clad black man who was sitting on the floor taking notes. To me those pictures looked like fragments of interrupted stories, believable yet somehow clearer and more charged than ordinary reality.

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

AB: I started out as a street photographer, very much influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, and Robert Frank, in that order. I used a hand-held Leica with wide angle lenses and available light and was mainly interested in moments of visual poetry. At the start of my second year of graduate school two events brought about my interest in photographing the landscape: the photographer Frank Gohlke came to teach in the program and 'Old France' opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. That was the first of four exhibitions that John Szarkowski organized on the work of the French photographer Eugene Atget. I began looking at, thinking about, and photographing the man-made landscape, which remains my central preoccupation to this day.


© Andrew Borowiec, Donora, Pennsylvania, 2009, from the series 'Post-industrial Rust Belt'


© Andrew Borowiec, Duquesne, Pennsylvania. 2010, from the series 'Post-industrial Rust Belt'

Tell us about your educational path. What are your best memories of your studies?

AB: The first photo classes I took were from the Ecole Club Migros, the night class division of a big supermarket chain in Switzerland. There I learned how to process film and make prints, mixing all the darkroom chemicals from their primary components, which I bought by the gram at the local pharmacy. At Haverford College I majored in Russian but I took photo classes and had a great teacher, Willie Williams, who encouraged me to go to graduate school at Yale, where he had studied. I had wonderful teachers at Yale— Frank Gohlke, Tod Papageorge, Paul McDonough, Ben Lifson, Richard Benson—but my best memories are of my classmates. We were all there because we were committed to photography and shared a common understanding of the medium. Almost forty years later I’m still in touch with most of my classmates and teachers and count some of them among my closest friends.

The advancement of the digital culture, its technological developments, the advent of social media, as observed these phenomena in relation to photography?

AB: I think those are two separate issues. Digital technology is just another tool that photographers can use to make pictures and, while the resulting prints don’t necessarily look like prints from film, the process used is secondary to the meaning of the work. I use digital capture for color work but continue to use film for black and white. I still use a darkroom because I have never seen a black and white inkjet print that matches the subtlety, beauty, and quality of light that you get in a gelatin silver print.

As for social networking, I’ve been told that it can be a useful business tool and that many younger photographers consider it vital to their careers, but I have almost no experience with that kind of thing, other than a profile on LinkedIn that I never update. I’m not on Facebook, have never looked at Instagram, and only have a vague sense of how Twitter works; and for all I know, those networks are already obsolete! A big disadvantage of working with digital capture and printing is that you’re forced to spend hours sitting and looking at a computer screen. In the darkroom, at least you’re on your feet and constantly moving around, using your body. Given how much time I already spend in front of my computer, I’m reluctant to add to the torture by “networking” online.

I think it’s a problem that so many people experience photographs on screens rather than as prints. I often seen work on the web that looks interesting, only to be disappointed when I eventually see prints. While I do have a web site, I think that it’s impossible to really understand my pictures at 800 pixels wide, let alone on a phone. A few years ago I did an annual report for a foundation in Cleveland. One of the photos was of a steel mill in winter, with hundreds of seagulls filling the sky above the blast furnaces. When the foundation put the picture on their web site, they used Photoshop to remove every single bird because on screen they just looked like dust. Fortunately, I was able to persuade them to undo that!


© Andrew Borowiec, Wheeling, West Virigina, 2015, from the series 'Post-industrial Rust Belt'


© Andrew Borowiec, McKeesport, Pennsylvania, 2012, from the series 'Post-industrial Rust Belt'


© Andrew Borowiec, Alliance, Ohio, 2010 from the series 'Post-industrial Heartland'

About your work now. How would you describe your personal research in general?

AB: I generally photograph places that I know well, either because I have a personal connection to them, or, more rarely, because I’ve learned about them through extensive research. My interest in the Rust Belt—America’s former industrial heartland—came about by accident of circumstance: in 1984 I moved to Ohio to take a job teaching photography and I began making pictures of my surroundings. As I travelled around and photographed, I could see how the landscape had been shaped by human needs: its history was visible in its topography, in its architecture, in the details of ordinary backyards.

I think much of my work is an elegy for an idea of America that seems increasingly tenuous and endangered. The country’s manufacturing regions have been in steady decline since the 1980s and people who expected that a lifetime of hard work would earn them some semblance of the American Dream are instead losing their jobs, their homes, and their place in the world. 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 had hoped to be.


© Andrew Borowiec, Times Square, New York City, 2015, from the series 'Lincoln Highway'

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format?

AB: I started out using a 35mm Leica M2 with a 35mm Summicron lens and, when I turned to medium format in graduate school, I stayed with the 2:3 ratio of the 35mm format and the angle of view of the Summicron, using a 6x9cm Fuji GW690, which is in many ways like an overgrown Leica, and which I almost always used hand-held. I’ve pretty much stayed with that format and angle of view for most of my career. In 2009 I started using digital cameras for color work, first a Leica M8 with 28mm, then M9 with 40mm, then M(240) with 35mm, all of which come close to the proportions and angle of view of the Fuji GW690.

A little over a year ago I began also using a Sony A7IIR, which has the same 2:3 proportions as 35mm or 6x9cm. Using that camera is somewhat like using a view camera. To take advantage of the huge amount of detail that the AR7II can capture I have to use it on a tripod, and since I’m using PC (perspective control) lenses I have to open up the lens to focus, then adjust the shift degree, then stop it down to make the exposure. It’s a very different process than hand-holding the GW690!

Tell us about your project 'The Lincoln Highway' 

AB: The Lincoln Highway opened in 1913 as the first road across America designed specifically for automobile travel. Beginning in New York City’s Times Square, it crosses fourteen states to end up at the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco. It constitutes a kind of cross-section of the country, not only in terms of geography, but especially culturally, as it passes through some of America’s most prosperous communities as well as many places that have been left destitute by changing economic and political circumstances.

For me the Lincoln Highway serves as a framework for examining ideas that collectively define American identity, such as the American Dream, Egalitarianism, belief in the sublime beauty of the Western landscape, the glorification of our agrarian past, nostalgia for small-town life, patriotism and military valor, ideals of feminine beauty, and other symbols and myths. Often the manifestation of those ideas sits in uneasy contrast with the evidence of commercial exploitation, economic hardship, industrial agriculture, and other complications. Without pressing the point, I think that the pictures are partly about the efforts we make to escape into a world constructed out of nostalgia, wishful thinking, historical revision, and fantasy.


© Andrew Borowiec, Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, 2012, from the series 'Lincoln Highway'


© Andrew Borowiec, Jefferson, Nebraska, 2013, from the series 'Lincoln Highway'


© Andrew Borowiec, Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, 2015, from the series 'Lincoln Highway'

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in some way?

AB: I’m sure that the teachers I mentioned above, as well as my former classmates and friends who are photographers, have all influenced me to some extent. Most of all, however, I’ve been influenced by the great French photographer Eugene Atget. Seeing the four exhibitions of his work that John Szarkowski organized at MOMA in the 1980s was a turning point for me. I think you can learn everything you need to know about photography just from looking at Atget. Taken as a whole, his pictures are like a great, epic, Nineteenth Century novel—by turns beautiful, lyrical, informative, philosophical, comical, visually surprising, and always informed by Atget’s intelligence and understanding of his subject’s meaning in its full breadth and complexity.

Three books of photography that you recommend?

AB: Any of the nine books by Mark Steinmetz that Nazraeli has published over the past decade, though I think my favorite might be 'Paris in my Time'. Otherwise, despite the proliferation of photo books in recent years, I end up going back to great Twentieth Century classics: Walker Evans’ 'American Photographs' and Robert Frank’s 'The Americans'.

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?

AB: By far the most interesting show I’ve seen recently was 'In Brooklyn: Architectures of Disappearance' at the Art 3 Gallery in Brooklyn about a year and a half ago. The photographer Sergio Purtell has spent years photographing New York City using black and white 4”x5” film, producing an extended, complex, and beautiful meditation on the constant evolution and transformation of the city’s social landscape.

In general, though, I don’t look much at contemporary photography . Instead, I find myself increasingly inspired by Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century landscape photographers. For example, Toby Jurovics curated a wonderful show of Timothy O’Sullivan’s photos, 'Framing the West', which travelled to a number of museums around the U.S.

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?

AB: I’ve photographed the Rust Belt for over thirty years and had been thinking I was finished with that subject. However, even though the region’s inhabitants were instrumental in electing Donald Trump, their circumstances under his presidency are inevitably going to deteriorate. I’ll be there to document that tragedy.


© Andrew Borowiec, Henefer, Utah, 2014, from the series 'Lincoln Highway'


© Andrew Borowiec, Plainfield, Illinois, 2012, from the series 'Lincoln Highway'

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Andrew Borowiec
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