Photos of America’s declining steel towns in the ‘70s

Photos of America’s declining steel towns in the ‘70s

Inside the rust belt — Photographer Stephen Shore recalls travelling across middle America to meet the people suddenly facing economic hardship after being thrown out of work by plant closures.

In the late 1970s, an area in middle America that would eventually become known as the ‘rust belt’ was on the precipice of disastrous decline. Mass layoffs were devastating steel manufacturing centres, as foreign competition and a drop in demand rocked the American industry. 

In the summer of 1977, photographer Stephen Shore, then age 30, was sent on an assignment for Fortune magazine to document the situation in middle America. He would travel to Pennsylvania, Ohio and across New York state to photograph the towns and the people impacted by the crisis over a two-week period. The photos Shore captured from this trip are collected in a new book, titled Steel Town (Mack Books). 

The year before Shore’s visit, the Bethlehem Steel company had laid off thousands of workers in Lackawanna, New York and Johnstown, Ohio. These factory towns were built on the jobs provided by the steel mills, and the decades leading up to the crisis had largely been defined by prosperity and a booming industry. But by the late ’70s this all changed, as workers witnessed the decimation of their livelihoods.

Shore met with the steelworkers who had been thrown out of work by plant closures. “The unions arranged for me to meet different workers,” Shore recalls, “who were all completely cooperative and welcoming”. His photos also capture their suddenly melancholic worlds, from the deserted factories, to lonely bars, to fading high streets, and their homes. These photos “transcend the moment,” Shore reflects, “they offer an emotional strain that isn’t specifically about what’s happening at the time”. 

Revisiting the photos over forty years later made Shore reflect on their relevance today and how the economic, political and social fall out from this period is still being felt.  “When I was looking at the photos in 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency,” he says, “I saw that the parts of the country that had in previous years voted Democrat that had swung to Donald Trump were in fact these very areas [in my photographs].”

And so I saw some of the seeds of dissatisfaction in the lives of the people I was photographing 40 years before.”

Steel Town is available now on Mack Books. 

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