In Bethlehem, a group of entrepreneurs has transformed the remnants of a bankrupt industrial giant. The city's ArtsQuest complex is a marketplace where culture is the new currency. An exhibit, "Oxidation & Interpretation: 10 Years After Bethlehem Steel," now blooms where Bethlehem Steel withered, bringing together the work of eight renowned photographers from the region to present their vision of the Steel Stacks then and now.
Peter Treiber doesn't quite remember how many of his camera lenses cracked under the heat of the steel mill's blast furnaces. He was one of 26 staff photographers who traveled the country to take pictures of the Bethlehem Steel empire for catalogs, calendars and company newsletters.
Now a decade after the factory shut down, his photos are on display in an art center built at the foot of the old steelworks. Treiber says they tell stories only an insider would know.
"Most people have no idea of what goes on in a steel mill," Treiber said. "Even steel workers who worked in a small department their whole life didn't know what was happening in other departments. And their families, when they come to the exhibit, say, 'Oh, my gosh. I had no idea of what my father did!'"
From the grueling to the sublime
Alongside Treiber's publicity shots, he took loads of other photos that did not conform to the corporate message. He was allowed to keep those negatives, and the images are now in the show and in his book "Inside Bethlehem Steel: The Last Quarter Century."
Each photograph reveals both the intensity of the grueling work and the somewhat poetic quality hidden in the red rivers of molten iron. It was a dangerous place, and he had to learn the choreography of the work flow. He remembers an instance when he had only 20 seconds to take a picture — "even though what you were doing might have lasted for an hour, because shortly after they started letting iron out of the blast furnace, the whole room would fill with smoke."
Theo Anderson, another photographer in the show, has a perhaps more intellectual approach.
"I use Bethlehem Steel almost as a muse, almost as a basis for a visual exploration, a spiritual exploration," said Anderson. "In doing that, it liberated me from trying to tell a story or a narrative."
In one of his best-known photos, Anderson captures the solemnity of a cathedral-sized empty building. Rays of light beam down from a broken ceiling to illuminate the abandoned space. Taking the photo is an experience he'll never forget, he says.
"When there's nothing around except for the creaking of the plant, you hear your own heart, your own breathing, and there's a great sense of mindfulness, to use the Buddhist term," Anderson said. "And I know that the only thing I can bring back to you, outside of my memory, is a photograph. But the rest of it is often sublime."
Inventing the future
This exhibit is possible only because the entire area has become an arts campus, says gallery owner Santa Bannon, who curated "Oxidation and Interpretation."
"What the Bethlehem Steel was when it was operational was a very dirty, gritty, hot, unpleasant place to be around," Bannon said, "and now it's a venue for the visual and performing arts — with beautiful buildings and space for music and performance indoors and outdoors. It's transformed completely."
The new Bethlehem is fueled by culture, an educated workforce and the Sands casino, built on the site of the steel plant. It's all deliberately located around the Stacks area, says Jeff Parks, president of ArtsQuest and the mastermind behind the industrial area's transformation. He wanted to capitalize on the power of education and culture to create the type of workforce attractive to the pharmaceutical and health technology industries and Fortune 500 companies. "And that's pretty much filed the vacuum left by Bethlehem Steel," he said.
Parks is a local. His mother came from a Pennsylvania Dutch Moravian family. His father came from Michigan to study at Lehigh University under the GI Bill. Jeff grew up in a city where higher education, faith, music, hard work and of course the Bethlehem Steel presence defined the town. He wanted to leave a mark in the city's urban landscape and is a strong believer in communities that attract the power of what's described as the creative class.
"They're going to invent the future, and they want everything — from sidewalk cafes, music venues, access to recreational activities and places to hike and bike, and all those things," Parks said. "So the arts, in essence, are the crucible through which creativity is inspired and is welcomed into a society and a community."
So there are still red-hot furnaces near the stacks today, but they belong to the glassblowing workshop at the Banana Factory, a collection of art studios and exhibition spaces. The Bethlehem Steel pictures, at the former banana warehouse and distribution center, are witnesses to the industrial past and present through the lenses of eight photographers.
"Oxidation and Interpretation: 10 Years After Bethlehem Steel" runs through Sept. 2 at the Santa Bannon Fine Arts Gallery located at the Banana Factory, at ArtsQuest at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pa.
"Oxidation and Interpretation: 10 Years After Bethlehem Steel" runs through Sept. 2 at the Banana Factory in Bethlehem, Pa.