America in a Trance by Niko J Kallianiotis
In November of 1935 Walker Evans made a photograph about Bethlehem titled “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania”. A large cement cross sits in the foreground overlooking a perfectly composed scene of American life and industry. A cemetery competes with brick homes and porches that are knitted together in a plateau that fluctuates between past and present, becoming a prophecy of an uncertainty that circulates around hard factory life. The Bethlehem Steel Company at times swelled to about 300,000 jobs nationally and about 30,000 at the Bethlehem location, about half the population of the city. The mill is no longer in operation and parts of it have been turned into a casino, boutiques and restaurants. I have been thinking about this photograph for a very long time and I am intrigued by its relevancy both in regards to the direction of the photographic medium and the socioeconomic condition. I have visited the exact location several times and It’s always a unique and precious experience; understanding history, understanding America, or at least try to.
For “America in a Trance”, I’m investigating and respond as I travel through towns and cities across the state of Pennsylvania, a once prosperous and vibrant region where the notion of small town values and sustainable small businesses thrived under the sheltered wings of American Industry. A mode to promote American values, industrialism provided a place where immigrants from tattered European countries crossed the Atlantic for a better future. An immigrant and naturalized citizen myself, I had always perceived the U.S. differently, mostly from the big screen Hollywood experience and the adventures of “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”. Traveling across Pennsylvania, I imagine these towns as vibrant communities looking towards the hot stacks and brick factories; a past where prosperity was possible on the local scale, and the streets and storefronts were bustling. The bitter irony of towns once so self-sufficient, which contributed to the bottom line of American industrial empire lay in rust, turned into casinos, or simply left to go forgotten with the exception of the hearty locals that soldier on. They became prey to colossal franchise companies, which are accepted as the norm, providing them “quality” goods and allowing no opportunities beyond minimal pay. Services for the residents are offered ubiquitously, but local employment, scant. This project is an ongoing observation of the fading American dream so typified in the northeastern Pennsylvania landscape but widespread across the United States.
My subject choices derive from intuition and the desire to explore the unknown and rediscover the familiar. Through form, light, and color, I let the work develop organically, and become a commentary of place but also of self. The hues work as the constituent of hope, not doom. The work is a product of love, for both the state and country he’s called home for the last two decades. While my interest is not in the depiction of desolation, at times it becomes necessary to the narrative. I search for images that reflect, question, and interpret life in the towns and cities across the Keystone State, and the yearning for survival and cultural perseverance. My interest is in the vernacular and the inconsequential, that which becomes metaphorical and a connotation to a personal visual anthology for the photographer as well as the viewer.