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This article by David McDonough Fox was prepared for the January 25, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Post-Industrial Palette on Film
It was an imposing sight, sprawling over five miles on the banks of the Lehigh River. Founded in 1863 Bethlehem Steel supplied billions of tons of steel for armaments, buildings, bridges, rails, and engines, including the Chrysler Building, the George Washington Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and the Panama Canal. An estimated 60 percent of steel used in World Wars I and II was manufactured there, as well as over 1,000 merchant and Navy vessels. But on December 31, 2003, Bethlehem Steel ceased to exist. "I bet I was the last person to walk through there while it was still Bethlehem Steel," says Lambertville artist Marc Reed.
He’s probably right. Reed had just received permission that day to take some pictures of the plant for a series of urban landscapes he was planning. Steel production at the site had ended in 1995, and the company had declared bankruptcy in 2001. But neither Reed nor anyone else on the outside knew that the corporation would be officially dissolved at midnight.
Reed’s photos form the basis of a 20-minute documentary from Lambertville-based Garden Bay Films entitled "Almost Gone: A Pilgrimage to Bethlehem." The film will have a special screening at the Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville on Friday, January 27, at 7:30 p.m.
Reed, who was raised in Freehold, had never intended the photographs for display. "I’m a painter of landscapes," he says, "but mine are a little unusual. I do industrial landscapes. I take an easel and go set up, but instead of going down to Washington Crossing Park and painting the bridge, I’ll go to Easton and find some textile mill and do a painting of it. What draws me to these scenes is the fact that they are disappearing. Driving around, I would see something and make a mental note: `That’s an interesting place; I’ll come back some time.’ And these days, if I let a year go by and come back, the place isn’t even there anymore. When you do go, you set up and realize you are in the parking lot where workers parked their 1929 Fords, and you feel yourself being brought back in time and imagine the way the place must have been."
Reed says that at a result of his experiences creating these paintings he has developed his own philosophy about these industrial landscapes. "They are very much the story of America. They represent immigration, race relations, and the birth of the labor movement. It’s where we got a lot of our prosperity and the basis for fighting a lot of our wars. Bethlehem Steel was a major armament manufacturer for all the wars right up through Vietnam. But it’s all disappearing. New Jersey is a prime example; like so many states, it changes quickly. I remember when I was growing up, a lot of the towns were factory towns. Now so many of them have shut down and become expensive suburbs, with $500,000 homes, McMansions. So I try to find a way to historically document the changes."
Reed had gone past Bethlehem Steel many times, and it occurred to him that it would be an ideal setting for a series of paintings. He found a contact to get into the mill and starting taking photos, thinking he would work from them to paint pictures. But the photos had other ideas.
He says: "I worked on some paintings – I’m currently working on the fifth – but I could not deny that the photographs were telling a story in and of themselves. So I decided to let them tell their story, because I think photographs help put people in touch with the place. You don’t have the filter of the paintings. I found I had some really interesting photographs; I had never taken seriously before. Being an artist helps – you compose every shot like it’s going to be a painting."
When Bethlehem Steel became slated for redevelopment by a Las Vegas company, Reed realized that he had captured a moment in time – a time capsule, he says – capturing the moment of limbo between Bethlehem the steel town and Bethlehem the casino town.
Reed says: "There was a quote from the last CEO of Bethlehem Steel, Steve Miller: `Now that we are being purchased by International Steel, we’re going to come back stronger than ever.’ For a little while, people thought they would continue to produce steel here. But it turned out not be the case; the company was dissolved. They gutted the place, left the shell."
Then, in January, 2004, Reed attended a meeting of Save Our Steel. "An exec from ISG had said that they would probably knock the plant down; it was an insurance liability," Reed says, adding that that comment sparked local businesses and individuals in Bethlehem to try to conserve it, and Save Our Steel was born. According to Reed, Save Our Steel is not necessarily opposed to redevelopment; they just don’t want to see the history lost. They would rather see the existing structure converted.
"It wasn’t until I heard about the redevelopment that I became serious about turning this into a photography show." Reed, who is a freelance graphics and interactive software designer, entered his photos in Bethlehem’s 2005 Southside Photography Competition and won first prize. "Fortunately," he says, "they had a category called Lehigh Industrial Heritage."
Reed then had a show at the Artist’s Gallery. Richard Behrens, an acquaintance of Reed’s, saw the show, and he already knew a lot about Bethlehem Steel. "He had just left a film production company in New York," says Reed, "and was thinking about what his next project would be. He saw my photos and thought `That’s it."
Lambertville-based Behrens formed Garden Bay Films with "Almost Gone" as its first project. He has other projects on the drawing board as well, including a film about freak shows, and one about Lizzie Borden. Reed hopes to work on those projects as well.
Proceeds from the "Almost Gone" DVD are being donated to Save Our Steel. Reed says that was an easy decision to make. "The film is not anything that anyone will make a million bucks from. We just wanted to get it out there."
Reed says he would like to work on more Garden Bay Films projects. "I like my taste of film-making and the idea of taking it to the next level," he says. "But for now, I’m back painting the Bethlehem pictures and the Easton textile mill pictures."
"Almost Gone, A Pilgrimage to Bethlehem," Friday, January 27, 7:30 p.m. Artists’ Gallery, 32 Coryell Street, Lambertville. Screening of Lambertville-based Garden Bay Films’ documentary about the history of Bethlehem Steel. Inspired by photographs by Marc Reed. 609-397-4588. For more information, go to marcreed.com or gardenbayfilms.com.
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