Margaret Bourke-White might be surprised by many of the new structures that comprise downtown Cleveland and the Flats today. But I believe she would still recognize those signs of the early steel industry which spread across the Flats last century. Many of these factory and bridge structures still exist today. They remain a testament to what was once a center of thriving industry and steel manufacturing.
Bourke-White photographed Cleveland during her short residency here from 1927-1930. Those early images were diverse, covering both the steel industry as well as private residences of the wealthy which were then published in Town and Country Club News. (1)
I’ve been reading Bourke-White’s excellent autobiography Portrait of Myself.(2) Her book has been somewhat of an inspirational roadmap for my summer project photographing the Flats. She was Fortune Magazine’s first photographer and a forerunner in the field of photojournalism. Her notable images include those of Stalin, Churchill and Ghandi, as well as the Great Depression and WWII. She has the distinction of being the first female accredited war correspondent.
of the area's growing industry. Our cameras were attracted to the same industrial subjects.
The Cleveland shoreline is now quite different from that 1927 view. Some bridges have been demolished while others and have been closed and now point forever skyward. Whiskey Island’s Huelett ore unloaders ceased operation in December of 1992. They were dismantled in 2000. Although steel production has dwindled in the Flats, you can still see remnants of the city’s industrial heritage along the banks of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River.
The Artist Moses Pearl
Dad would return home after his sketch trips and promptly display the new work in his studio for all of us to view. It was always fascinating for our young family to see which new factory structure, river bend or sweeping bridge arch he had chronicled on canvas. Even though we lived in the suburbs, we were treated to new glimpses of the city almost every week during this period of our lives.
And with this window into a fascinating and unusual environment, it was probably inevitable that I would explore the same crooked streets and factory structures when I grew older.
My photo trips to the Flats began in 1974. I chose camera and film instead of brush and canvas, and my tool of choice was the medium format twin lens reflex. That summer I bought a used Mamiya C220 TLR which was my first pro level camera. It created a square negative measuring 2 ¼” x 2 ¼”.
Rugged, easy to use, and with simple manual adjustments, it was an inexpensive way to get into medium format photography. It also created an image that was more than three times the size of a 35mm negative. This larger film format made it possible to create highly detailed enlargements with excellent resolution.
During this period I had also started doing part time wedding and social event photography. The Mamiya proved to be a boost to my wedding work which in turn helped to finance my fine art efforts. By using a professional format camera, I was now able to offer images that were superior to those of my competitors who still used 35mm equipment.
Nearly 50 years earlier, Bourke-White followed a similar passion as she created her iconic images of Cleveland's industry and manufacturing operations. Her darkroom was located in the new Terminal Tower complex. Besides capturing images of steel production in the Otis Mills, she had also documented construction of the Terminal complex for the Van Swearingens. She always matched her tools to the task, shooting large format film for her industrial images. Later as a photojournalist she adopted more compact cameras and smaller film formats.
I professionally shot medium format film for more than three decades. Most of this was wedding and social event photography. In 1998 I upgraded from Mamiya to the Hasselblad equipment, one of the finest medium format SLR systems ever made. The lenses are superb and the camera itself is both ergonomic and extremely reliable. It’s no surprise that Hasselblad accompanied NASA on the moon trips.
Whenever I had spare time I would always return to Flats and the Lake Erie shoreline. Cleveland’s seasonal changes create a variety of lighting conditions that can generate some fascinating images. Family vacations were also an opportunity to photograph the National Parks. I loved doing medium format work in all of these locations.
My rationale for changing was both financial and competitive. Lab costs for film processing were spiraling upwards. Many of the pro labs no longer printed directly from film negatives. Commercial labs still processed film in the conventional manner, but then scanned and digitally printed the images. This “middle” step was not only slowing my workflow but it was potentially degrading some of the detail and tonal range of the original film capture. At the same time, my competitors were delivering more pictures to their clients, very extensive coverage, and enhanced finishing services at costs I couldn’t touch with film.
Digital View of the Flats
All of this has meshed very nicely with my summer project photographing the Cleveland Flats. Just as Bourke-White would always try to match the proper camera to the job, I believe she would have enjoyed the evolution to digital. She loved technological advancement and marveled at the 20th Century's early machines.
Cleveland’s Flats and the downtown skyline continue to change. Margaret Bourke-White documented that urban evolution for a short period early in the 20th century. This was an era of growth and expansion for the city. But by the time she had gone on to become one of the century’s greatest photojournalists, local steel production had hit its zenith. In the latter half of the 20th century Cleveland had gone into industrial decline. Fortunately the city’s commerce had diversified into finance, insurance and healthcare, moving segments of the region into the new century with some vitality.
By 1930 Bourke-White had taken a position with Fortune Magazine in New York City and enjoyed a penthouse studio in the Chrysler building. She would often look out her windows and marvel at the city’s moods. Fog, rain, snow and sun all offered wonderful vistas for her camera. And it was her stay in Cleveland that helped Bourke-White to develop that critical eye for light and shadow.
Flats Gallery Photos
Want to see more photographs of Cleveland's Industrial Flats and the Cuyahoga River? Visit my gallery at:
(1) Margaret Bourke-White The Cleveland Years 1927-1930 The New Gallery of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, Ohio © 1976, Introduction by Theodore M Brown.
(2) Portrait of Myself Margaret Bourke-White Simon & Schuster, New York © 1963