Andrew Wertz has been taking photographs of the Anthracite Coal Region for the better part of a decade. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His photographs were exhibited at the inaugural Anthracite Arts Festival in July 2018. To learn more about Andrew’s work, you can visit www.AndrewWertz.com.
Jamie Longazel from Anthracite Unite recently spoke with Andrew about his photography, about the coal region landscape, and about the challenge of wrestling with loss.
This is Part 1 of a two-part interview. Be sure to check out Part 2, “The Inescapable Inevitability of Loss”.
Jamie Longazel: Tell us about how you got into photography, and specifically how you got into photographing the coal region.
Andrew Wertz: The built environment is something that’s always driven me. I sort of stumbled into photography while taking classes I thought would provide a foundation for architecture school. I had been really interested in historic preservation and spent a couple of summers during college working for statewide non-profits. But I had a change of heart ultimately once I started to question why it was always certain eras that were being deemed “historic” while not others.
For example, a downtown association might decide that it was only appropriate for all the storefronts to be painted dark green and restore them to the 1890s or whatever. But that’s not fully appreciating the past. The past happens in stages, progress is a series of fits and starts. That’s different than deciding only two or three decades are going to be held up as the penultimate vision of the past.
It reminds me of when Philadelphia knocked down all its Victorian buildings in the 1960s while modernism was at its height of fashion. We have this way of trampling over much of the past without really understanding that every era tells a story. It’s the combination of all the different eras going on at once that excites me. That’s something that I see uniquely preserved in the coal regions.
I’m really interested in bringing an awareness to this area, especially among the people who live there. What do I tell people when I’m out photographing in the alley behind their house, or when I’m taking pictures at 4 a.m.? Sometimes I’ll be taking pictures of a building and they’ll say: “Oh, is someone finally getting rid of that building, are they finally selling it?” “Oh no,” I’ll say, “I’m a photographer.” To which they invariably reply “Well what are you doing taking pictures here? You got to go take some nice pictures of the valley and the scenery.” Often times that’s the entrance into a conversation where I will point out what I’m seeing. “Look at the detail of that building. Look at all those little pieces of finely turned woodworking along that roof line.” I think there is a tendency to underestimate people’s ability to understand and to sort of ‘get it.’ Once you talk about it and explain it you can see the moment it clicks. They may still think I’m a little nuts, but that’s okay. We’ve gotten a little bit closer to a shared understanding.
Because it’s a very different thing living in the coal region rather than going there as an outsider. There are very endemic issues at hand. It’s tough. It’s a tough place to live. So you understandably will sometimes run into negativity that’s directed in a lot of different ways. But talking about the buildings is a good entrance for me into a story that mirrors the story of this country, of what led to industrial growth and what attracted so many people here as immigrants to find work and to build a family.
I’ve been focusing on Shenandoah exclusively for the last two years. I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 2015. I had been shooting my thesis on the entire coal region, mostly Schuylkill County. Then I took a year off to think about what I really wanted to do, but it was Shenandoah as a place that for me encapsulated what I wanted to say about the region.
Just the specifics of it. Its isolation: It’s a town that’s surrounded on three sides by coal fields and one side by a mountain so there was no place to expand. Not like Hazleton, which spread outward; Shenandoah is hemmed in. There was 1.2 square miles, which supported a population of 30,000 in 1920, when its population peaked. What amazes me is how with the exception of very few blocks here or there that were lost to fire, it’s mostly intact and preserved. Because no industry really ever came in to replace the jobs that were lost. Sure, you had the garment industry – they called them the wildcat shops – my grandmother worked in one for 20 some years before they went south. And a few other industries, too, but there’s been nothing here to take the place of decades upon decades of growth. So for me, what you have is a visual history of American culture that is mostly preserved. It’s just a tremendous, tremendous thing to experience and witness.
JL: Lets back up… I’d like to hear your story. You grew up in Bucks County and you were going to the coal region a lot as a kid to visit your grandparents. Is that right?
AW: Exactly. My dad grew up in Frackville and my mom grew up in Shenandoah – actually in Turkey Run, which is a patch just outside Shenandoah. They got married in high school and moved away. They had my brother when they were 17 and 19 years old. But growing up for all the holidays we would come up to my grandparents’ to visit. We’d go to Frackville and then go to Shenandoah, to Turkey Run. And then every summer I would go up and visit my grandmother for a week.
I guess she got laid off from the factory that she worked in – the sweatshop, basically – they would lay off the workers for the two hottest weeks of the summer. I thought she was on vacation! But she was laid off and collecting unemployment for that time, which is what everyone did. But I would go up and stay with her. She was heavily involved in her church, so I would go to with her and attend Sunday School and even stay after the service while they counted the collection. She would run a rummage sale every year. We’d go behind the pantry to where all the donations were stacked and stored. A lot of those early childhood memories are deeply tied to the work I make.
When you’re a kid you have your home and that’s what you know and if it’s a constant in your life you don’t think twice about it. It’s just the water that surrounds you. But going to my grandparents was always this special thing – coming upstate, going to parades, going to block parties, going to the church… just being surrounded by the visual environment. Everything about it. It’s where my grandparents were. They exist in the firmament to a child. When I would get to my Grandmother’s house first thing I would do is go into the kitchen and pull a chair up to the cabinet and reach to the top shelf where she always had an assortment of goodies and knick knacks waiting for me. It’s a place where you’re just showered with love. You get very fond memories of those kinds of places.
Then when I got older and started to look back, I could see that there really was something unique and interesting about the coal regions. By this point I’d traveled across the country and seen many, many places but would think, wait… “there’s still so many things I haven’t seen anywhere else but the coal regions.”
The architecture; the way everything is just kind of jammed together. And you have these towns – you’ve got Shenandoah and Mahanoy City then you’ve got Girardville and Ashland – I mean, towns that are fully self-contained and functioning with a complete identity all their own. Like my dad would always say: a bar and a church on every corner. And it’s true! It’s just such a dense, rich urban environment.
So, yes, I grew up coming up to visit my family and then my grandfather passed away when I was 9, in 1989, so we started going up less and less. Then my grandmother passed away when I was in college. Then it wasn’t until after college when I came back on a trip with a girlfriend at the time; I wanted to show her where my family was from. I remember bringing a camera and as I’m taking it out in an empty lot in Shenandoah, I’m trying to find a spot and elevation where I could take a picture that would make some sense of the place and I just had this feeling of stage fright. It felt completely impossible to take a picture of what I wanted to take a picture of. As if there was no way to capture the depth, and the feeling, and the meaning that this place had for me. It almost felt like I was a traitor or an impostor. They talk about the old adage: that taking a photograph is stealing someone’s soul. I felt like I could never ever do it justice and it was just too big for me to approach. And it scared me in a way that I just didn’t know how to understand it. And so that was this pivotal moment for me.
By the time I ended up applying for grad school and getting in, I knew that I would end up photographing in the coal region. And I had gotten up the courage to start photographing there by that point. I had been working in a warehouse. I was working third shift, living in Trenton, New Jersey. And I’d probably come up once or twice a week. I’d try to get all my work done and get out so I could make the hour and fifteen-minute drive up to Shenandoah in time for sunrise. I started shooting that way, around 2011 and 2012. That’s when I started making work and investigating the place, still feeling overwhelmed with excitement and interest and passion and this desire to capture something that I thought was passing. That is passing. That has been passing.
That is my relationship with photography, at least in terms of how I teach it now and how I approach it as a personal practice. It is a way of investigating the passage of time, or of slowing time down. Nailing something down you see in a single moment. It freezes time. It ruptures the process of going through the motions of every day. There is a certain kind of attention and awareness when being someplace at the right time, with the right light. In the right circumstances, you come away with a picture that is an experience in itself. It transcends and goes beyond the moment and acts as a way to bring other people into what you are seeing and what you’re responding to.
JL: Where in that trajectory do buildings in particular become a part of your interest?
AW: The buildings have always been an interest of mine. Just personally, it seems to be the way that my mind tends to work. I think there are different people who respond to different things and my interest has always been in the built environment. Some people like to go out for a hike in nature and look at the scenery there. Cities are what do that for me. Reading buildings and looking at the clues they provide, it has always been what excited me in terms of my photographic process. Just looking to find ways to make pictures out of what I see and out of the way the light is hitting the side of the building. I just respond very intensely to that.
So to relate that to the things I’m talking about with Shenandoah: While Shenandoah may have a greater concentration of all these things happening at once on the top of a pin, it’s still the same thing I’m responding to when I go to St. Clair, or go to Minersville or Pottsville or Shamokin or Ashland. It’s everywhere and all over.
What I’m saying is similar to something I read out of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which has been running through my head. He talks about being really, really interested in the period of the Civil War in this country, and having this feeling that there was something very, very important that was going on and he didn’t completely understand what it was, but he had this gut feeling that there was something there in the story of this nation, the story of this country that was rich and valuable. So he went to the main branch of the New York public library and took out everything he could. He read old newspaper archives and just sort of steeped himself in this period.
I remember when I read that, it was just something that really resonated with me in terms of my attraction to the coal region. I think that there’s a record here of something that was unique and distinct in the trajectory of this country that is not going to happen again and for the most part is lost in other cities.
I think there’s a story that’s left in the built environment in these towns – it’s a story of unprecedented prosperity, change and upheaval. And primarily for immigrants. Shenandoah at one point had 26 different churches, serving 26 different languages. And every house had a boarder, someone staying there that the family would depend upon for income, often young men from their home country. You could still see it when you walk the streets and look at the doors. There are doors at the basement level or there’d be a back apartment.
That’s one of the fascinating things about Shenandoah, there wasn’t any space to expand. They’d build houses on the front of the street and when that was full they’d build them on the back of the street. So the alleys are lined with houses. Alleys that can’t even fit two cars down have full lines of houses. And when they ran out of space there they built houses in between the two. Like half-houses that are in the backyards, basically.
It’s the population density, but also what makes it visually special is how every single house is completely different. This is something you can definitely see in the pictures. Just the details and the personalization that occurred during all the various eras of updating. You’ve got all this wood frame construction. Then you’ve got the asphalt shingles; you’ve got the asbestos shingles and then you’ve got the aluminum siding and then the vinyl siding and just these layers upon layers of individual people and families making changes and personalizing their homes. Over time, you just get this wonderful vibrancy – at least to me. I know there’s a lot of poverty and that a lot of these places are run down now, but what I’m saying is you can see them all as a vibrant record of the past.
One of the things I’m always fighting against is this read of my work as “sad.” Because of course, there’s always a part of the work that has to deal with the sadness of it. The place is lost. What is here is a record of something else, and it’s not going to ever come back. To me, though, I refuse to see it as a lament. Because there’s also a record here of perseverance. There’s a record here of intense human struggle and care, also. In each of the alterations to the buildings, in people’s handy work, you can see their care. It’s their individuality. They’re all different. You talk about the importance of diversity – this is by no means a cookie cutter place. Even just little things. Like looking down a back alley, every single house is different, and the wood carved by hand. Not that I’m saying there’s value to something made by hand as opposed to machines, but that there is uniqueness and there’s variety and there’s a vibrancy from when things were happening at such a fevered pace and everything was booming and growing. The variety in what you see, to me, is just special and unique and it has an intensely powerful story.
JL: What about this picture where in the foreground there’s a white house with red steps and a red door? I’m looking at that one as you talk and really appreciating your words. My dad grew up in Hazleton and their half-double house was in the more densely populated part of town. They had in their backyard, which has always fascinated me, this patch of grass that is essentially the lawn now. It’s tiny. Probably 20 feet by 15 feet, if that. And each house on this block has something similar because it was where they grew their vegetables. Which was a necessity for a working class family raising ten kids. But I never got to see it as a garden – at least that I remember. By the time I was around, it was just a “yard” – me and the other grandkids would play tag in it and stuff like that. Which I think speaks to the alterations people make over time that you’re talking about.
But anyway, the first thing about this picture that I’m appreciating is this little yard and knowing how that probably means so much to someone. That yard is probably a vat of childhood memories. And if I’m hearing you right, we might even say it captures what might have felt like prosperity for a family, even if it wasn’t “actual” prosperity. Just playing and having a good time, even in a little space like that, can mean the world to someone.
The door and the steps I think are also beautiful because you know that was a change or an addition that someone put on later. But my favorite part is in the background where you have that half-double with the two different color sidings. I grew up in a half-double house just like that. I remember you had to kind of negotiate with the neighbors: “Hey we want to put on new siding, are you up for it?” And to me that speaks to relationships. Like, the neighbors at one moment may not be getting along but prior combinations of neighbors got along really well. It’s also probably about various moments over time when people did have the money to make updates and when they did not. What I’m saying is, a particular relationship and/or a particular set of circumstances at some particular moment led to this being a multi-colored house!
AW: Yeah, it definitely speaks to a relationship, and you see it all over. There was a house across from my grandmother’s at Turkey Run. She once told me that people would come down the street just to look at this house because it was half green and half red… it’s completely bizarre. And it’s that type of identity and that type of co-existence to me that’s just fascinating.
A word that always comes up for me when I’m discussing the coal regions is palimpsest. It’s used to describe a manuscript that has been written over and over and over. I think of it as a wall that has graffiti written on it multiple times. Or like where there’s a sign on the side of a building that’s been painted on top of an earlier sign. These layers and layers of history that have been added to over and over and over. It’s like you go in an old house and you peel off the corner of the wallpaper and there’s another layer of wallpaper underneath. By examining those layers, you can kind of trace the history of the room. That’s the thing about the coal region’s environment: it’s tremendously rich and it’s a story – a story that just isn’t told in the same way in the suburbs.
Read Part 2 of this interview, “The Inescapable Inevitability of Loss”.
Andrew Wertz is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. His photography addresses the social landscape and built environment of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast United States with a particular attention to the Anthracite Coal Region of Pennsylvania. He speaks to the changing nature of place, identity, and the inescapable inevitability of loss. But also, life… he speaks to it’s charms.