When Stephen Szoradi was in college at Bennington he heard that a drawing class was taking a field trip to a nearby quarry. Attracted by the prospect of seeing a large explosion, he tagged along, only to find himself fascinated by the whole scene. "I'd never seen raw materials before, growing up in D.C." He returned with his camera and began photographing the quarry, but found he wanted more. "It seemed like a natural progression to go from photographing the plant itself to get the whole picture," and soon he was photographing and interviewing workers. The exhibit that resulted placed photographs of retired workers above excerpts from their interviews.
Szoradi first came to Chicago in 1989, to assist two local sculptors as part of a work-study program. He already had an interest in the area's steel industry, piqued by industry photographs of Lewis Hine and Charles Sheeler, and he was delighted by the presence of light industry--the lumberyards, the building-supply places, fabricating plants. So after graduating in 1990 he returned and enrolled in Columbia College's MFA program in photography, hoping to focus on the steel industry. His initial requests to photograph inside steel mills were roundly rejected; persistence, and a friend's father, got him into a finishing plant, and he was eventually able to gain access to some mills. Nucor, in Crawfordsville, Indiana, gave him the run of the place.
He used four-by-five and five-by-seven view cameras, whose negatives give maximum clarity. The cameras allow you to vary the angle of the film plane to correct the perspective, avoiding the distortion that would otherwise result when photographing large structures. All this gives the mills in the photos a vivid physical presence, and points up the impossibility of taking these structures in at a glance. In his exhibition statement Szoradi likens the mills' interior to cathedral architecture with "three-thousand-degree furnaces at what we may call the nave."
Szoradi composes to emphasize the lines that extend beyond the frame; in two photos overhead bridges grow larger as they meet the picture's top edge. They are mounted in steel frames made at Nucor, and as the eye passes from the frame to the silver of the photos, one is reminded that photo images too are made of metal.
A selection of these photos is presented as part of Szoradi's new exhibit, his MFA thesis show called "Blue Collar Cathedral," now on view at Ab Imo Gallery. In one of the stranger but more effective combinations of media I've seen, he groups his stately prints with ordinary objects from the mills, wrenches and hard hats, mounted and displayed like objects of veneration. Also included are a number of sketchbooks from the project.
By combining his photos with actual objects, Szoradi directs the viewer's attention away from his photographic artistry and toward the physicality of the mills themselves. One sculpture encloses a large rusty wrench in rusted metal shaped into the form of the niches that typically hold sculptures in church walls. The wrench, Szoradi says, is "like a stone carving of a saint . . . an icon to work performed." The show runs at Ab Imo Gallery, 804 W. Randolph, through April 30. Gallery hours are noon to 6 Tuesday through Saturday. Call 243-8395 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Loren Santow.