Writer's note: I wrote a version of the following story about the work of Pittsburgh photographer Ross Mantle a couple years back for In Community magazines. Ross's poignant observations of life in the Mon Valley were striking to me then, and now they will be seen by much wider audiences, thanks to 707 Penn Avenue Gallery in Downtown Pittsburgh. A showing of his "In The Wake" project, which was partly inspired by his familial ties to the Mon Valley, begins at the gallery at 6 p.m., Nov. 25. Please see Ross's work; a couple of his photos are here.
Driving around the Mon Valley a few years ago, photographer Ross Mantle checked out old mill sites and aging buildings, sauntering around people still pursuing their versions of the American Dream in places including McKeesport, Duquesne and Braddock. While wandering the Mon Valley with no goal but a possible documentary project on the area, somewhere deep in Mantle’s creative soul, a fire was started.
It could be the atavistic yearning of a McKeesporter’s child (his mother and maternal grandmother are from there) or the rusty view of a native Pittsburgher, but something beckoned Mantle to chronicle the people and places that make up the Mon Valley. He had been thinking about such the project for a while.
While attending Ohio University, Mantle had thought often of doing some sort of photo project when he came back to Pittsburgh. A 2004 graduate of Bethel Park High School, the freelance photographer began to practice his craft by shooting photos for the high school paper. He threw his heart into photography while in college. After earning a B.S. in Communications with a photojournalism focus from Ohio University, Mantle came back to Pittsburgh and it wasn’t long before he was pursuing his dream of a Mon Valley documentary project.
But don’t call Mantle’s project the American Dream, because he doesn’t believe there is such a thing.
“I don’t think the American Dream is real,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people who buy into it, but I don’t think it’s really there at all.”
Even so, he’s spent countless hours photographing some of the aftermath one aspect of what some would call the Death of the American Dream. So far, he’s photographed about 8,000 images, which he expects to be part of a published book some day.
The photos include people and places, rusty spots and care-worn faces. They all appeal to Mantle, who finds his subjects by going to spots he thinks he might find interesting and wandering around until something strikes his fancy. Often, observe people and if he wants to photograph a person, he’ll approach them.
“Usually people are pretty open,” Mantle said. “The people here [in the Mon Valley and Pittsburgh] have a rawness that inspires me. There’s a straightforwardness of the people… There aren’t many places where you can speak your mind and still remain friends with a person.”
Mantle has not yet found a publisher for his Mon Valley project, which means he’s working on it pro bono for now. The work is something of a vocation for him.
“I think it’s an important time in this country. What’s happening in the Mon Valley is the same stuff happening in Detroit. It’s an important thing to look at now,” Mantle said. “Hopefully, the project changes the way people think about the people who are living in the Mon Valley and how things are working.”
While he has taken some photos of the bustling Braddock U.S. Steel mill, Edgar Thompson works, Mantle is mostly shying from the newer businesses in the Mon Valley. He said he would like to speak with Mon Valley residents who want to offer suggestions. Some of those people, he conceded, no doubt feel they are living the American Dream. “Somebody might have no money, but be living somewhere with his family and feel that he’s living the dream,” Mantle said.
Having grown up visiting his grandmother in McKeesport and hearing the stories from his mother of taking the trolley into downtown when the place was happening with throngs of people, Mantle had an idea of what things were like there in past decades.
“‘I can’t believe what McKeesport’s like now,’” Mantle recalled his mother, Monica Mantle saying.
Much of the impetus for his work, which is informed by his admittedly left-of-center perspective, is an attempt to get at the quirkiness that is the Mon Valley. “I shoot a photo because it makes me think, or laugh,” he said.
The best part of the work itself is that it gives him a chance to wander around, Mantle said, laughing at the thought. “It is liberating to not have to focus on anything but these ideas I want to photograph,” he said.
Despite the somberness of his project’s title, Mantle believes that part of what he is chronicling is the vibrant life in the Mon Valley.
“Somebody from California might not think it’s so vibrant,” Mantle said, “but there’s a character to it, a toughness, that’s still there. You have to have been emotionally and mentally tough to have survived there.”
Mantle has worked for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, but the project isn’t exactly journalism, he said. In fact, he doesn’t call himself a journalist. But he does find the layers of history of the Mon Valley to be compelling—even with its towns partly shaded by long-vacant houses. The many vacant homes—some of them obviously once grand—in parts of the Mon Valley astound him.
“I can’t imagine being so desperate that you just up and left a house. It’s mind-blowing,” Mantle said.
Millions of people came to this region to for jobs in which they created things, Mantle said. “You can’t erase a century of ideals,” he said.
But what happens when the promises of some of those ideals seem to have been broken, and people’s lives are ruined in the process, such as happened in the collapse of Big Steel in the 1980s? It appears to be up the following generations to consider. To Mantle, the American Dream is a myth; an idea that many people build upon.
“When the economy collapses, you have to realize that the American Dream wasn’t there to begin with,” Mantle said. “What I’m looking at now is the values and traditions that are left over. The idea of home, a sense of place and how people fit into that place.”
While Mantle is not a believer in the American Dream per se, he would not argue that Mon Valley folks don’t believe in the dream.
“I think the dream is not gone there, but it has changed forms. I think it needs to be evaluated,” Mantle said.
Many people in Western Pennsylvania are so tied to their history and so close in their identification with a specific place, that it makes them unique in this country, Mantle noted.
“The stuff I’m shooting has a lot to do with place and how it reflects the people,” he said.
Images from “In the Wake of the American Dream” can be viewed at Mantle’s web site, www.rossmantle.com. For more information on his project, email Mantle at firstname.lastname@example.org.