Twice a month, John Francis Peters talks to image-makers about their long-term projects and how they approach their work and subjects. This week he talks with FADER #72 photographer Ross Mantle about his project “In the Wake of an American Dream.”
What drew you to this project?
I moved back to Pittsburgh in early 2009 after I finished school because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I’d been thinking about starting this project for a while. My mom is from McKeesport it’s this town outside of Pittsburgh, eight miles or so downriver. It used to be its own city away from Pittsburgh, fuckin’ big, 60,000 people or so, but now it’s like 20,000. I’d go there with her because my grandmother was still there and my uncle and his family still live there. She had Alzheimer’s, so we moved her down to West Virginia with my uncle in June of that year. All through my teen years there was always family around, my grandmother and cousins or sometimes we'd go to my mom's friend's house down the street. When I was a kid, my parents had opened a bike shop nearby in Little Boston, the next town over, so I was there all the time growing up too. I don't remember the mills going. But now they're gone, everything is gone, there’s really nothing left. My mom, in the town that she grew up in, would lock the car doors when we were going down the street. I’d always laugh at her, but I understand now, it’s kind of a sketchy place.
It’s a forgotten, postindustrial, rust belt, strip mall environment—
There’s not even strip malls there, or they’re kind of empty. McKeesport was one of the biggest of the valley mill towns, and it has fallen, not the furthest, but. When I got back there, I started thinking about my relationship to home. I didn’t feel connected to the suburbs I grew up in. My dad was from the country and my mom was from the city, it was kind of in between and a nice place to raise a kid and send him to decent schools. But it never really felt like home as much, so I was reevaluating what this means to people, and why people would stay in a place with nothing looking hopeful. The 40,000 people that got out went somewhere. I was dealing with those questions, also dealing with the idea of the American dream. At that point the recession was pretty bad, dominating the news and everything, I was thinking about what the American dream means when the economy goes to shit, when everything it's built on falls out?
There was a wave of prosperity and then a collapse. In the midst of what’s going on across America today, is there another wave of change happening there?
I don’t think there’s necessarily a wave of change because it’s already fallen so far that it’s in a post-depression. Pittsburgh wasn’t affected by the recession like other places were because the economy fell apart so many years ago. It’s been in an underlying recession since the steel industry collapsed. It probably didn’t feel as bad there as it might have in California or Florida.
Have your feelings toward the project changed during this period?
I went into it with a lot of pretty open-ended questions, thinking about why people stay in these places and what affect the economy has on what’s important to them. When those steel mills were booming, their American dream was a white picket fence, two kids, a dog, this wonderful life with money to spend on Main Street on the weekend. Two cars, everybody has a TV. People held on for a long time through the closings in the ’80s, but now, after all the mills have gone and there’s no chance of that coming back, the dream turns back to family and loved ones and familiarity. History becomes important, and nostalgia for what was, because that’s all that’s really left. My Dad would makes jokes when my mom would make a joke or talk shit or something, with that old saying, "You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl." I think that’s especially true in places like McKeesport and the Valley.
Are you still working on the project?
I want to go back and work on it over the summer. I’ve taken a break since I've been living in New York, but it’s still something I’m thinking of every day. Whether I’m working on the project directly in the Valley or whether I’m working on it in other ways, it’s very much part of the work I’m doing and will continue to do moving forward.
Cameras affect process and approach. You shot this project all digital, but I think you showed that you can slow down that process. How did you do that? You can see it in each frame, they’re all controlled and thought about.
I wanted to shoot it two and a quarter at first but I felt like digital would allow me more options to shoot at different times of the day, that quality wise it would be better option. It was cheaper at the time too. Processing was expensive and could be a pain in the ass in Pittsburgh and I was really broke when I started working on the project. I was really conscious about slowing myself down, only allowing myself a few frames for everything I shot. I still shot a lot, especially portraits. I still spend as much time shooting a portrait with digital as I would with two and a quarter. What I wanted was in my head, I didn’t want to go in there and blow through stuff. I forced myself to be slow, to take it easy with everything. I was working on a couple other smaller projects at the time that were shot entirely on a medium format camera. I learned the benefits and limitations of both, film and digital, and then worked to incorporate or understand those while shooting with both formats so the camera didn't matter as much as the thought process.
What are you working on now?
I’m not shooting in the place that I’m from right now, trying to wrap my head around what’s important to me outside the limits of geography. I’ve been working on new books and promos. I’ve been so enveloped in getting portfolios together that I haven't seriously started a new project. Looking at your own work gets fucking boring, but it's good because you start to see where it's weak and what the common threads are and how to build on them to make something new. I've been shooting a lot, not under the scope of a single project, but the stuff is fitting together in a lot of ways I didn't expect. I've started to think that a lot of my work ends up being about mortality and immortality and the relationship between those two ideas. And I look at landscape and environments and geography a lot and how people are connected to those things around them. Even the American dream thing, the American dream is supposed to be this ideal where we will live well forever and always prosper, but that’s not the case. The American dream is a fallacy and has always been so, but it’s been pushed in to our minds, and that thinking shows up in the way we construct or destroy our landscapes.
There’s no core truth?
I think there’s a core truth but it’s not the American dream as it's pushed on us. There are ideals that are very much important to us, as people, like family and history and a general common struggle that help us relate to one another, and I think that maybe that's what the American dream is supposed to be, but that doesn't sound as good or promising as equal opportunity for everyone and great prosperity for everyone that works hard.
So where did this American dream come from? Is it derived from our genuine aspirations or is it a dream projected onto us?
Anyone trying to sell people on something, like corporations or our government, need to sell Americans on their ideals. I think a lot of us have grown up with one idea of American success that’s been put out there by people who want us all to buy into it. The ideal has been adapted and changed over the years—we have the choice of accepting it, or we can redefine it however we want and make it ours. When the practical realities that conflict with the American dream set in, like after an economic fall out, then we are forced to reevaluate what it means to us, what's really important in our lives.
You approached this community with a sense of humanity and struggle. Have you taken something from this project that you’re following in different work?
When I move beyond people and shoot landscapes, there’s still this constant struggle between an ideal and a reality. Even in nature, man is always fighting to overcome and nature is always fighting to take back what it can.
This year we’ve seen a revolution across the Muslim world. But we haven’t seen that type of revolution here, even with the longest American war and an economic collapse happening all at once. Do you think there’s a dream of a specific type of freedom that is common to all people, that goes beyond national identity or religion?
Fuck yeah! Dreams for personal freedom are formed over years, different ideas and different experiences, changing truths and realities. Collective dreams aren’t ideas someone just comes up with one day, and the Egyptian revolution didn’t come out of thin air, it’s something that’s been developing for decades, centuries, one thing building upon another, getting it to the point that they're at now. But I guess, in the case of America, there's complacency. Once you have it and it's comfortable, why fuck with it any more? There's no real need to question what that freedom means if we're not personally affected.
I think there’s a commonality in the human existence, and that is what I’m starting to look at more. No matter where you go in the country or out of the country, what is that human existence? What are the things that are at the core of it? I see common threads in a desire for personal freedom and aspects of mortality and immortality. We always want something better, we want to be remembered, we want to live forever and we want the freedom to be able to try making these things happen. But there’s mortality in everything we do, there’s mortality in civilizations and our land. No matter how long those things last, they’re going to fade away eventually and something new is going to take their place.
In Egypt, there’s an end to Mubarak’s reign, and eventually there’s probably going to be another change in Egyptian politics, just as there’s a fading away of American industry and American power. There’s mortality in everything, but it’s this constant fight. Eventually nature is going to overcome the ways we fucked it up. We can only pollute and destroy for so long, eventually those things are going to catch up to us. But we’re not always conscious of that future end, we're human, and I think a very human trait is thinking or at least wanting things to continue without any compromise or consequence.
To see more photos and read more about this project, go Ross Mantle's website.