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, CT. 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, editor and co-founder of Anthracite Unite, recently spoke with Andrew about his photography, about coal region architecture, and about the challenge of wrestling with loss.
This is Part 2 of a two-part interview. You may want to start by reading Part 1, “Palimpsest,” which is available here.
Jamie Longazel: You have this line in your bio on your website that I really like: “He speaks to the changing nature of place, identity, and the inescapable inevitability of loss.” I love how you put that and I think you were really speaking to this idea in the beginning of our discussion.
I read that and I thought, “That’s the coal region! He’s certainly taking pictures in the right place.” But I can also imagine someone reading that and saying “That place hasn’t changed! It’s always been this lowly, providential, economically distraught collection of towns… what has it actually lost if there was nothing there to begin with?” What I’m saying is that the richness the coal region offers, even in struggle, is something that not everyone understands. You have to have a strong familiarity with the place to know that and to appreciate that.
When I go to conferences and talk about my research on Hazleton, which is where I grew up, I often end up interacting with upper-middle class academics who are from wealthy places or who live in big cosmopolitan cities. I tell them about my work and they say “Oh yeah, Hazleton! That’s that really bigoted, backwards place in Pennsylvania. Thank God you got out of there, right?” And I want to jump out and say, “No! You don’t understand…” But you almost don’t know where to even begin if you’re going to try and convince them otherwise. Especially if you want to defend the place without sounding like a reactionary.
How do you talk about the layers and layers of nuance without defending or endorsing the contempt for outsiders that we’ve seen in this area in recent years?
AW: It’s a really tough subject. I always come back to this notion of loss. It’s a hard thing for me to deal with in terms of what’s at the core of the project for me. It has this aspect to it which is intertwined but also distinct from what I talk about in terms of my architectural interests. It’s the way my family narrative informs and intersects with the work. My dad grew up in Frackville but his mother (my grandmother) came to Shenandoah via Ellis Island from Poland with her family as a small girl and lived on West Laurel Street before they moved to Frackville when she was in her teens. And my mom from age seven onward went to school and church here. My parents met at a High School basketball game here. All my family roots have sort of come through this town. When I’m photographing there’s this feeling that I’m passing over hallowed ground. It’s very much a form of magical thinking on my part, but I’m aware that it’s my own creation. It’s the archaeology of a myth. But it’s rooted in the reality, or should I say persistence of place. In this very spot. And while it has nothing to do with the supernatural, it certainly imbues places with meaning that perhaps I wouldn’t otherwise draw out.
But I also tend to be – I don’t want to say pessimistic, perhaps it’s fatalistic, I don’t know – but in looking at where we stand now, in looking at a place like Shenandoah, I feel like it’s saying things we don’t exactly want to hear even though it’s right in front of us. Big questions about our value as human beings once the circumstances of our utility change. The forces that render capital out of human sweat and toil have moved on. I don’t think there’s a lot of room left for people doing the type of jobs that were done 100 years ago. Things are rapidly changing. This is already the waking dream of a bygone era.
For me – and maybe this speaks personally to myself as an artist – I’ve always been driven by this intense awareness of my own mortality. And coming to terms with that is really what is at the heart of what I do, personally speaking. It’s an earth-shattering reality to wrap your head around non-existence. But I don’t know how I would make sense of this place and my place in it if I didn’t keep death close to me, to grasp at the inescapable space between what is and what’s not and to try and square that which can never be squared.
And so I go back to these places that filled me with memories, that wrapped me with feelings of love and safety and security and I think about all the people I love who are no longer alive and I attempt to wring meaning out of the world that stands without thought in front of me. I look for beauty, I look for clues poking up in unexpected places telling small stories of life hidden among the cracks of the sidewalk; behind dusty windows and closed doors. As if somehow the care I bring to it could overcome and make up for what’s been lost. I’m not saying it’s the right way but it works for me. To kind of meditate and turn over the stone again and again and again seeing what richness I can find out there that I missed before because I didn’t see it clearly enough until now.
Death is as essential to life as being born is. All things are both ebb and flow. To look forward, look back, it will lead you around the bend. But there are questions and difficulties. How can we live life without it being a lament? Can it never not be a sad story? How can we find ways to resurrect and celebrate? How do you find lasting meaning? How do you find value and nurture joy in a world that’s fleeting and transient and always changing? It’s tough.
JL: One of the questions I wanted to ask you was “how have people from the coal region responded to your work?” But I’m going to ask a slightly different version of that because I think what you’re tapping into about identity and place is deep and on point.
For me personally, the act of learning about this region and its history coupled with confronting current realities head-on is what has kept me from despair and it’s what keeps me doing the work I do – editing this blog, for example. I know nostalgia serves a psychological and a social purpose, but I know that it can be very dangerous too. What I mean is that once you confront it, I think the grittiness of the current moment becomes more beautiful than the artificial, idealized nostalgia that so many of us tend to draw from when times are tough. And your photos do this for me. It’s as though authenticity itself makes life more tolerable. What do you think about that? What is the role of art in helping us avoid despair?
AW: I agree with a lot of what you said. To me what you’re saying is the gritty reality of the present – or just the gritty reality of reality as it is – is richer than this nostalgic image of the past. That there’s something still present. When I teach photography, I tell my students: you need to get out into the world. And some students like to do studio work or take pictures of their friends and I tell them, no, you need to go out and face things. Because when you do, it forces you to take your preconceived notions and put them aside and instead just respond to what’s in front of you.
To answer your question of what the response has been of people who are from the coal region when they see the work. It usually comes not after seeing a picture or two but after they’ve seen a body of work and we’ve engaged in a conversation. My cousins who live just outside of Ashland and grew up in Frackville talk about how I see things that they would never see. Part of that is coming in as an outsider, but it’s also that I’m actively looking. When you’re in a place all the time, your brain is going to go into auto-pilot mode more often than not, it’s always looking to work more efficiently and if it can offload this process and accomplish the same result it will. Unless there’s a reason to, it’s not going to pick up on small things the same way. You almost have to leave home to understand what home is in a certain sense. But they get it when I talk to them about it, the things I’m looking at, what I’m interested in and trying to record. My mom gets it. When I talk about fighting against the idea that these are just rundown old buildings and pictures of decay she gets the nuance. She also brings a level of emotion and is informed by her own personal history and I’m honored to see her access that when she looks at the pictures. Seeing it affect her is deeply meaningful.
And when you talk about what are the specific circumstances that have led this place coming to be. It’s a story of our ancestors. It’s a story that has played out in so many other places. What happened here in terms of the boom in the market and immigration patterns and the formation of an identity and a culture that has a distinctly local identity, from the accent, to traditions, foods, activities, etc.
One of the questions that comes up in my work is how is that reflected in the buildings, that distinctness? That sense of identity and the connection that we feel. There’s a very, very strong sense of identity among people who grew up in the coal region and I’m not going to say that people who grew up here are different from people who grew up other places, but there’s something meaningful about that notion of where you’re from (and what your ancestors did to make their way) for all of us.
To me, the built environment and all of its’ small details are capable of telling so much. Just backing up far enough from a building when the light is right and framing it just so and looking at the whole of the thing in front of me – this act of looking – of trying to simplify something very complex, has for me been a kind of savior in a way. When I decided to make photography, when I decided to go to grad school and to put all my chips into photography, I didn’t know what was going to come of it, but I did know that when I was spending time making art, when I was spending time taking pictures, when I was spending time just out in the world looking, looking at what’s around me, and talking to people… when I would actively engage my curiosity and try to soak up as much as possible, I was rewarded in ways that are unimaginable otherwise.
It’s rooted in the world and that’s so tremendously refreshing, just even the conversations I get to have… When I would always try to take pictures of people in grad school, there was this feeling that the photographer needs something from the subject. And I always go back and forth with that about my role as a photographer in terms of my own personal experience and my role in terms of conveying someone else’s. But point being is that we live in these bubbles – like you said, you meet these academics at conferences – “oh, Hazleton, glad you got out of that shit hole” – I have a good friend in Scranton who photographs the region and he gets infuriated when these fly-by-night journalists drop in and their photographers come and they do their story on “Trump country” and this notion that this is all “Trump Country” as though that all encapsulates the diversity and the struggle that is existing here.
When I’m out photographing people and talking to them, I’m talking to them as human beings. We’re not talking about politics. We’re just talking. You remember their underlying humanity. We are just people. And you can effectively love them in a way that’s very, very difficult to do when we’re separated by political hatreds. And what gets said on the news is not the full reality of the day-to-day on the ground. It’s just so easy to get distracted when you’re sitting in your home watching TV or behind a computer screen and looking at the world one way, but when you’re out interacting with people who are living their lives, it’s just that magic of the life that’s actually happening. For me it instills wonder. And instills an understanding of a deeper richness that gives our lives meaning. And for me looking at buildings and tracing back the history of places – you know, to be able to say: there was a bar there and now it’s an apartment. And that was a butcher shop, a market, a doctor’s office, a shoe store. All on the same block. Now all of them apartments, mostly vacant perhaps, but all concealing secrets.
The nostalgia thing is tricky, too. Sometimes there are nostalgic imaginings of a place or thing that never actually existed in reality. Finding the line between truth and fiction is difficult, and always a work in progress. When I go back to my grandmother’s house in Turkey Run, which is abandoned and can’t be more than fourteen feet wide, it’s this tiny little house that’s slowly kind of giving in to the forces of nature but I just have so many memories of it. Wonderful, positive, joyful memories of it and my time there. But does my mother? No, not at all. That was where she moved as a young girl after my grandmother re-married. It was a change in her life that proved painful and hard and at times traumatic. If anything, that house represents all the things she wanted to get away from when she left the coal region in her teens.
There’s a different reality for all of us. But how you make sense of your own experience and what you bring to the table matters. By looking at the world around you, being curious and engaged and asking questions about what you see adds a richness to your experience. Even just being out in the world, pointing out this or pointing out that in an internal monologue to yourself gives everything a texture, it gives memory a sticky surface to adhere to. And that’s part of photography – like how I was talking about the fleeting nature of time – simply taking a moment and preserving it, just to see what it’s all about.
For example, there’s a little building in an alley way down on the east side of Shenandoah, a block off Centre Street, near where the Philadelphia and Reading used to come through. There’s an old livery, like an old horse stable, and there’s a large barn door painted red and white and beside it there’s a smaller door, kid-sized, also painted red and white. Above this small door, is carved the name “Lilly.” I can only fathom how long it’s been there but there’s a good chance it’s 70-80 years old. My mind revels in things like that. Flies in the ointment… these little glimpses of past lives, past eras, crossing over into the present. Situating yourself within that passage of time helps give a little perspective on the fleeting nature of our own lives.
JL: I see what you’re driving at. And a lot of what you’re driving at I think also helps us explain this phenomenon where people leave the coal region all the time. I often talk about this as one of the great ironies of the immigration story here, because while the coal region is becoming a immigrant-receiving place, it’s also sending migrants to other places in large numbers. It has been for a very long time, in fact. Almost always in response to economic conditions. People leave not because they want to but because they have to.
But even though people leave in person, they often don’t leave in spirit. There’s still this attachment. And it’s deep. I’m saying this because I think it connects to what you said about seeing things differently depending on where you’re situated – inside or outside of a place. And I think you and I are similar in that we have this deep familiarity and this attachment but we’re still positioned on the outside, at least physically. Then the question is at what point do our interpretations become limited because we’re not actually living in that space?
AW: Of course. But there’s something there and then when it’s gone its gone and it’s not ever coming back. At what point does a critical mass disappear? And what does that mean? What does it mean when a place that once had 26 churches now has maybe three? And the ones that are still there are ready to be knocked down? It all depends on what point you’re at in your life and whether you’re able to see the changes that are taking place.
But I still have this faith. Faith is maybe a strange word to use. But there is this kind of uniqueness that comes with the territory of the coal regions and it may take some distance and some time to understand that but it’s also something that you don’t quite understand what you have until you’ve lost it. And so I’m not quite sure what the answer is. I’d like to find a good way to talk about it. It’s hard to put a finger on it, or to name it. But there’s something there that maybe isn’t going to be there forever.
As a teacher, though, what I believe in more than anything is awakening people’s agency. Revealing that they have a point of view and a voice and that’s what matters. And it matters because it’s their voice. Because they have something distinct and they have something valuable and that value comes from the diversity and the difference of their own experience and their own past. And we all have something to give. The awareness of that – of knowing that true knowledge comes from within, and is fostered and taken care of and given a space in which it’s valued – and creating that is more valuable to me than anything.
Part of that is you get to decide what’s beautiful. When you’re taking in all these images and you’re absorbing all these notions of beauty and value from the outside, what do you resonate with? What’s your curiosity? Where is your little niche? What is it that you know that you’re maybe afraid of pursuing because you don’t think that it’s interesting? One of the beautiful things about the coal region is that there’s value all around you. This place is actually important. You may think it’s not. It may be cool to not think it is. We all grew up hearing “this town sucks,” “I need to get out of here,” but it’s like as you get older you realize, no, there’s actually beauty everywhere. It’s how you approach it and what you invest in it. And it’s so important to give people opportunities to get some of that out. To give the place value again.
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.