by Jonathan Blaustein

We’re all middle class, aren’t we? We, the creative class, were reared to have options. Here in America, at least, if you’re reading this, you’re probably white, and you likely grew up comfortable. (If you were upper class, you’d be reading Frieze, and planning to jet off to Dubai to take some sun.)

In case you’re wondering, I am aware that one of these days my penchant for stereotyping might just get me into trouble. But until then, I will endeavor to keep it real. If you grew up with enough education to become a photographer, or an editor, or an art buyer, it’s unlikely that you come from a dirt poor rural spot of nothing, or a gritty inner-city ghetto.

I believe our respective middle-ness is a big driver for the need many photographers have to visit emerging nations to document poverty. (And violence. And misery.) The obsession with “The Other” is well-worn. On the flip side, our mission to share truth and reality with the wider world, through our respective media outlets, often comes from noble roots.

Seriously, how many of you have a colleague who rose up from nothing to become an artist? Or a journalist? Of course it’s possible, but I’d suggest that for those with little or nothing, the desperate need to ensure survival supersedes the desire to make pretty, or important pictures. Given how much I believe in the power of Art, would that it were different. But class matters, as does one’s home turf.

I got to thinking about this, having just put down “Steel Work City,” a new book by Rikard Laving. (Journal) If bleak beauty is your thing, this is one to buy. If you love a peek into how the other half lives, those who toil thanklessly in dirty industry to make the cash to buy food, pay for gas, and perhaps have time to fish a bit on the weekends, then this one is for you as well.

The slim volume opens with a lovely poem by Mattias Alkberg, in Swedish, and then English. To be fair, you don’t know it takes place in Sweden until the end notes. The initial viewing provides a generic, cold, Scandinavian experience. Sitting here in New Mexico, it could have been Finland, Norway, or Denmark for all I knew. (It’s funny that some neighboring countries have internecine rivalries, but all look the same from the other side of the planet.)

But Sweden it is. The narrative is based at the Swedish Steel AB compound in Oxelösund, and the surrounding areas. (It employs 54% of the local population.) Lots of billowing smoke, modernist institutional architecture, and gray light. In the wrong hands, the material could easily be bland and banal. Instead, I was hooked.

This book is a great example, (as was last week’s,) of what happens when everything comes together. The production quality, the text, the graphic design, the use of suspense. (Where is this? What’s going on?) I loved that each image was allowed to breathe on the page, and that the titles gave me the info I needed just below.

The subtle color shifts communicate cold, and even boredom. The school children pictures truly surprise, as we see that diversity has hit this sleepy little area. It’s not just a bunch of little Aryan kids. Who knew?

I’ll readily admit that bleak beauty doesn’t do it for everyone. Some folks prefer otters and ocelots. Cacti and chameleons. Boobs and bikinis. Why not?

But I love the experience of opening up a photo-book, and being reminded how lucky I was to be born with options, in spitting distance of the most powerful city in the World. (Here’s your shout-out, NYC. Enjoy the mantle while you’ve still got it.) It’s a big part of why I worked so hard for seven years to share the power of Art with kids less fortunate than I was. The other reason, unsurprisingly, was that the bills needed paying. I’m a working stiff too. Thankfully, though, my fingernails are clean, and my hands are as soft as a baby’s belly.

Bottom Line: Lyrical, bleak life in a Swedish Steel town

To Purchase “Steel Work City” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.


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  1. Well, that’s quite a set of assumptions about the economic background and racial make-up of your readership. You look out at your audience and you see a reflection of yourself. Self absorption is blinding.

  2. Unfortunately, that blanket statement concerning race does hold true to this day in most fine art and business aspects of photography. There are plenty of non whites featured in front of the lens, behind it- not so much. Many a review, workshop, etc in this country today are less integrated than the Swedish group photos above. The cost of this avocation/profession remains a major factor- amongst others.

    • But do you see how it’s a blanket statement that only serves to alienate any non-white readers? Likewise, the comments that presume to know the economic backgrounds of artists/journalists/etc. only serve to discourage readers without a middle/upper middle class upbringing. The reviewer isn’t even presenting these assumptions and blanket statements as problems to be overcome. He’s simply telling us more about his own blinkered way of thinking by presuming to tell us who we “probably” are. Anyone with enough self-awareness to recognize that they have a “penchant for stereotyping” should probably try to look outside themselves and consider how that stereotyping (what he refers to as “keep[ing] it real”) my be perceived by others.

  3. I can’t speak to Mr. Blaustein’s motivation- I can only respond to the basic veracity of his statement, which (in my experience as a non white) is basically true. And the economic hindrance presented by the costs inherent in photography (one that I very much struggle with to this day- I’m more working poor than middle class) remains an all too true reality that hinders more people of color than any blanket statement ever made by anyone.

    • Of course it’s true that whites with money are the majority of just about any professional field I can think of. That’s not something that’s up for debate. I’m sure most bloggers in the Western World could begin every one of their entries with the statement, ” [I]f you’re reading this, you’re probably white.” Arguing the veracity of that statement simply misses the point.

  4. I think that is in part the very point Mr. Blaustein was attempting to make- though he would be best off answering that himself.

    Just as it’s pretty obvious that (much as I love, appreciate and respect his work) Mr. Eggleston would have have probably been nothing more than a talented weekend and vacation shooter had he actually had to work and struggle to make ends meet like other mortal men.

    • It’s my point that you seem to be missing. The introductory comments (regardless of how accurate these generalizations may be) are alienating and exclusionary. It proposes a reason that “we” are infatuated with “the Other” by making broad based assumptions about who “we” are. In short, comments like these are part of the problem, not the solution.

      And just to avoid any confusion, the “mew” above is me with an extra letter clumsily thrown into the mix.

      • Think I got it, and think we may be arguing towards the same point from different ends. Sometimes it’s good to dust off and throw those very stereotypes and generalizations we casually dismiss or take for granted into the public forum for the sake of reevaluation. How did they originate and develop, how do they influence everyday discourse, how do they limit and control? I say shout ’em from the hilltops if it’ll get people to finally, actually hear them for what they are and become conscious as to what they really mean and how they actively incite or subvert in every manner both subtle and sublime.

        Otherwise, we just have people who continue to… stop reading.

  5. sick and tired about the race tags…stopped reading after the white with money sentence…

    • I didn’t even read your comment.

  6. Just chiming in here for those of us who came from a poor rural spot of nothing.

  7. “….it’s unlikely that you come from a dirt poor rural spot of nothing…”

    I don’t know if your stereotyping will get you in trouble or not, but I do know that it does not do much in creating an image of a deep thinker for you.

    Cheers from one of your readers of unlikely background.

  8. The opening statement is a bit presumptuous. You can’t explain peoples motivations or interests in such a clean/neat/compartmentalized way. Not all of us come from privileged backgrounds, and life isn’t completely deterministic. I think you’ll find that we all come from very different backgrounds with very different experiences, which is why we are able to look at the world differently from one another.

  9. I think there is a big difference between articulately stimulating some “shelved for safety thinking” and “exclusonary and alienating commentary”.

    Especially if one isn’t afraid of words.

    I think JB has done a great job at providing context for his views and supported his ideas well,

    It it’s up to the reader to consume on their own terms.

    Thanks to all for sharing.

  10. I find it fascinating that people travel the ends of the earth, documenting the “other half” when all they need is to travel into the far reaches of urban cities that might scare them the most. You’ll discover many of the same stories and horrors.

    I agree with the author overall, but I’m not angry. I still believe this is the same country where Chris Gardner came from homeless dad to investor owner; Benjamin Carson from rose from an angry poor kid to top heart surgeon of the country; or a broke playwright can start his own Madea entertainment empire. There’s a reason why immigrants are trying to sneak into this *itch! lol

  11. Non-white reader reporting in.

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