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Faces of the Rust Belt

In his new book A, photographer Gregory Halpern set out to capture the people of the American Rust Belt.

Halpern’s work has always dealt with the character of (and characters in) crumbling industrial cities; he’s a native son of Buffalo and now lives and teaches in Rochester. His photographs are of stark, rough places, but there is rich emotion in the faces and features in the landscape he documents, and glimmers of radiance — what might be called hope.

His first book was Harvard Works Because We Do, a portrait of the university through its service workers. Halpern took some time out to answer a few questions from Cities.

What does A stand for?

I don’t want to totally pin that down. But the original source came from the tattoo on the guy in one of the photographs in the book; the image kind of stuck in my mind. I like the ambiguity of it. A is the beginning: of the alphabet, also America.

In these places where there’s all this death and decay, there are moments of birth and life and renewal: the reflection of light on a piece of glass, a flower growing. I wanted A to be everything and nothing.

The photos are set in cities along the Eastern Rust Belt. Tell us how you came to cover life in those places in particular.

The initial intrigue came from growing up in Buffalo. I was always so fascinated by the landscape. The population of Buffalo today is half of what it was at its peak. So much of it is abandoned, reused, re-purposed, and regrown, and I always found that strange and beautiful.

Most of my photos at one point came from Buffalo, and I got tired of photographing the same neighborhoods, so I started going to other cities and feeling a kinship with places I’d never been. I could tell the story of Buffalo specifically, but then I realized it wasn’t just Buffalo, it was about America, life, death, and renewal, too.

Whether it was Buffalo or Pittsburgh or Detroit, I could find these visual metaphors that could speak to all these things. Half of the photos were taken in summer 2010; the other half are from five years of trips and photo shoots. On the summer trip, I bought a pop-up camper and spent two months driving through the Rust Belt. I would set up shop in a state park outside of a city, and I would drive around these cities all day, then come back to my trailer.

Your images show people and animals as loving, defiant, dreamy, getting lost and getting by – as they are, at home in cities that have been described as ruined or post-apocalyptic. It seems to me that you focus on life in all of its varied, vibrant glory. Is that accurate? What do you want most to evoke in your portraits?

The animals and trees became for me an indirect way to reference a post-Eden life – the garden, after the fall. There’s some element of that, and now that the people and animals are scavengers who have to make do, after this paradise lost. As the book ends, I wanted to end on a hopeful note, and there are two images of houses being repaired, and a magnolia tree exploding, despite its being injured. The last page is of a raccoon up in a tree. He’s found high ground. That’s what life is like: we’re all surviving. In the end, there’s some kind of resilience, and transcendence.

In your explorations of these cities, you must have come across some commonalities, be they the economic flattening of the larger place, or the specific job woes of people you met. What struck you the most as shared experiences in these places?

It wasn’t necessarily the thing I was photographing, or the town, it was the feeling of the thing pictured. And that you don’t know until you find it. Houses specifically become like faces to me; I can photograph a house and it feels to me like I’m taking a portrait of it. Some people’s faces can betray a certain weakness, or idiosyncrasy – a person can attempt to show confidence, but something else adds complexity. A house can do the same thing – advertising a strength or power, but betray a vulnerability.

We all get old and die; in the meantime, we try to keep ourselves looking decent, and it gets harder and harder as time goes by. There’s something both beautiful and sad about the effort to fight that. I was really moved by certain houses and certain people’s faces for that reason.

In this day and age of ruin porn, how do you create photographs that converse with subjects with sensitivity and complexity, instead of just viewing them as objects? It would seem to take no small amount of delicacy.

I think about that ruin porn genre – that phrase is amazing, it sums up this whole genre and tears it down. I’ve felt that about work I’ve seen before, about Detroit and Katrina: it’s beautiful but uncomfortable. At times I have feared that my work would get grouped in with that.

What I hope is that my pictures exude some kind of feeling that they’re made from a more personal perspective. There’s an emotional coolness to large-format work, an attempt to appear objective and precise. It suggests that there’s something documentary about it, and I don’t claim that, and I don’t want to, because that would be an arrogant claim. I can’t possibly do that with any accuracy.

By contrast, this is more about how I feel about the Rust Belt. I try to create a physical closeness to the subject – the feeling that you’re standing on the ground right next to this person or thing, that there’s some kind of connection, either through the eyes of a person in a portrait, or that the colors are intentionally subjective. To me the strange color casts I choose are evocative of an unreliable narrator’s perspective, that it’s affected by my feeling about this thing or person. I want that to be a part of it, and I want this book to feel totally subjective. Because with photography, generally you’re being shown a highly edited version of reality.

You don’t have any text in your book, so obviously there is some ambiguity — you’d like to leave your reader with some room for interpretation. At the same time, there are reasons you’ve chosen to pair certain photos, and to create the particular stream of consciousness that runs through the book. How do you decide how much to guide, and how much to let the viewer run free amidst the urban landscape you’ve created?

I wanted it to remain open, to make the reader work a little bit, to be active in terms of piecing it together and being surprised or startled or disturbed at certain points. For me, exploring these cities and neighborhoods is kind of like that – you turn a corner and you don’t know what to expect.

That’s what I love about these post-industrial cities, there’s all this history and culture pressed up against each other. I want the experience of flipping through the book to mimic that experience a little bit, because for me the process of shooting and walking is like that. It can be kind of scary, but exciting, that element of not knowing what you’ll find. You can also be pleasantly surprised by moments of beauty in places where the rest of the world would never think to look for it or find it.

Why is this a book of this time? Why will it transcend it?

It feels like a potentially pivotal moment of the American empire to me, and I’ve been thinking about that. There are cracks, there’s vulnerability; our supreme sense of confidence has been shaken, and maybe that will produce some kind of humility.

In some ways, the book felt like it came out of this political moment, but maybe what’s more interesting is this transcendent idea of being a person: we all live and die, and in the process of trying to live a decent life, it’s intensely complicated. In a broad sense, that was more interesting to me than this moment in American history. We all fall and fail. We all try to get back up, and there’s something beautiful about that.