Stephen Shore’s Desolate Photos of the Rust Belt in the 1970s

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Hard Times Come to Steeltown by Stephen Shore
Lackawanna, New York, October 24, 1977© Stephen Shore. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York and Sprüth Magers

The American photographer’s 1977 series Hard Times Come to Steeltown – which forms part of a group show at Sprüth Magers in Berlin – depicts the decline and desolation of factory towns across the Midwest

When Donald Trump became president in 2016, he did so on a wave of promises to restore America’s Rust Belt to its former industrial glory. A year later, while preparing for a retrospective at MoMA, American photographer Stephen Shore came across a series of his photographs that illustrated just why Trump’s words had resonated so strongly with the Midwestern electorate that had assured his victory.

Hard Times Come to Steeltown, which forms part of a new group show at Berlin’s Sprüth Magers, was originally commissioned by Fortune magazine in 1977, months after steel plants began laying off thousands of workers in small towns across the Midwest. Following years of post-war prosperity, a reluctance to modernise coupled with a growing prevalence of cheap imports meant America’s proud history of domestic manufacturing – and the communities responsible for it – fell into steep decline.

Shore’s series took him across Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, to factory towns whose identity had disappeared overnight, leaving a void that extended far beyond the vacant workshops and bars that now lay silent. The seeds of this devastation, which Shore documented in its relative infancy, have yielded an irrevocable change in American politics, from the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 to Trump in 2016. “I realised that – 40 years later – the children of these people I’d photographed grew up in economically depressed areas of the Rust Belt,” says Shore. “These were the people who voted Trump into office.”

Five years prior to the commission, Shore had exhibited the landmark American Surfaces in New York, a series that in both style and substance initiated a radical shift in contemporary photography, despite its lukewarm reception at the time. Shot in colour on a road trip from his native New York City to Amarillo, Texas, the series’ ethnographic approach equipped Shore with the tools he’d need for his subsequent visit to the Rust Belt. “I’d be able to go into a town and make sense of it,” says Shore. “Or I could identify its unique features and know how to interpret them.”

Having refined his ability to read the unfamiliar, the years following American Surfaces saw Shore move from 35mm to a view camera. The transition opened up new formal challenges that Shore had largely resolved by the time Fortune came calling. “I felt with [the Fortune] project the beginning of something new,” he says. “I still had questions that I wanted to pursue, and did for a couple of years after, but at that point I had enough experience that I was beginning to know instinctively how to structure the picture. I had assimilated those questions and they didn’t have to be at the forefront of my mind in the same way as they had a year or two before.”

The result was a more productive, intuitive approach, enabling Shore to photograph the scenes of urban plight he encountered over the course of just a few days. “I didn’t have to spend 15 minutes moving around trying to figure out exactly where to stand to make a picture as I might have three years before,” he says. “I would just go to the spot because I’d worked it out at that point.” 

Shown alongside intimate portraits by American artist LaToya Ruby Frazier and the iconic, gridded typologies of German conceptual duo Bernd and Hilla Becher, Shore’s photographs bridge a gap in our understanding of America’s Rust Belt. Seen through his lens, the plight that befell steeltowns is not confined to the late 1970s, but one that continues to define national politics, not only within the Midwest but globally, where unskilled labour is increasingly at odds with a digital economy. Despite being taken in the US, Shore’s photographs reflect something more universal, a crisis borne not of material scarcity but spiritual demise. 

Rust by Bernd & Hilla Becher, LaToya Ruby Frazier and Stephen Shore is on at Sprüth Magers in Berlin from 2 July – 27 August 2022.