Typologies

The former ‘King of Beers’

My photographic safaris in my former home town of St. Louis inevitably lead to beer. You cannot tell the story or show the story of St. Louis without focusing on the suds that made the city a world-famous beer epicenter.

As I have published on this blog before, St. Louis became the leading center of American brewing. German-American families became the barons of the new American industry that brought beer to the masses. The Anheuser-Busch dynasty conquered the local market and then the country, producing brands like Budweiser and Busch that were both bland and iconic at the same time.

The Anheuser-Busch complex occupies several city blocks, in the southeast corner of the city, overlooking the mighty Mississippi River. Globalization finally brought the King of Beers to its knees.

Anheuser-Busch became a lowly American subsidiary in 2008 to the Belgium brewing conglomerate InBev, which turned to massive debt financing to acquire the American industrial icon for $52 billion. The sale generated allegations from locals of “traitor” toward billionaire investor Warren Buffet.

The plot thickened in September 2016, when shareholders approved the $104 billion merger of Anheuser-Busch Inbev and SABMiller, another global beer conglomerate, based in London. The announcement was followed by reports of job cuts. The earlier merger had led to nearly 2,000 job cuts in the St. Louis facility between 2011 and 2016, according to local news reports.

Looking at this beautiful industrial facility, sculpted in classic St. Louis brick by great craftsmen, I see a great American business that helped create this city. Now I feel both nostalgia and sadness knowing that this uniquely American corporation has turned into a satellite facility of a company that knows nothing about the city or people who made the brand famous.

Yup, there is a tear in my beer, and I’m crying for you dear.

Industrial architectural icons of St. Louis

St. Louis has more than its magnificent Gateway Arch to showcase the city’s rich industrial and economic past. During my recent visit, I caught a few of the city’s most iconic structures: the old Falstaff Beer plant in North St. Louis, the Union Electric Company energy plant in the city’s industrial riverfront, and the massive grain silo facility in central St. Louis, now owned by the Ray-Carroll County Grain Growers Inc. cooperative.

Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.

ArcelorMittal steel plant, Cleveland

Cleveland’s industrial legacy still lives. As one drives into Cleveland from the south, it is almost impossible not to see the massive ArcelorMittal steel plant on the Cuyahoga River. This plant covers more than 950 acres, with 7 million square feet of building space and nearly 2,000 workers. The company, based in Luxembourg, accounts for about 10 percent of all steel production globally, and also has been attacked for its environmental standards by critics. Iron and steel production in Cleveland and other northern Ohio towns have been a part of the economic landscape since the mid-1800s. The complex here dates to the turn of the 20th century, to the Charles A. Otis Steel Co., and has undergone a series of ownership changes until the current owners acquired the facility in 2004.

I have always been fascinated by the power embodied in these facilities, which belch out exhaust and steam and churn raw materials into the building blocks of our modern world. Cleveland is a place where such facilities still function, as heavy raw material production has moved from the United States abroad. (Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

AK Steel Ashland Works plant, form and function

The AK Steel company’s Ashland Works plant includes a pig iron blast furnace and oxygen furnace. It stands on the banks of the Ohio River in the small industry town. As you drive by the industrial facility on Highway 23, one cannot help but stop and be amazed by the facility’s purely utilitarian function and form. (Click on the photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Port of Portland rail yard and grain elevator

My explorations of the industrial lands in north Portland uncovered some haunting images as the mist lingered for hours. I could photograph rail yards and shipping facilities forever, and the Port of Portland had some tasty visual morsels. I love the forms, the functionality, and total commercial nature of these places. They have one purpose, and that is to ship goods from one place to another. They represent commerce in its least packaged and purest form. You can see other photos I have taken of industrial forms on my web site. I also have documented a number of industrial sites in Portland on my blog.

This particular image is of the port’s Rivergate Industrial Park. The port’s web site reports Portland is the largest wheat export gateway for the country. (Click on the photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Water towers, northeast Portland

I began noticing water towers a lot after I discovered the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, masters of photographing typologies and industrial forms. Water towers are one of the most ubiquitous structures one sees in a city. They are not toxic, or dangerous, or even ugly. They primarily serve as temporary water storage tanks for water suppliers and departments during specific times of the day and help to address peak demand needs at hours when residents bath, flush, and use water. I noticed these towers on a bike ride through Northeast Portland this month (October). Many communities choose to paint them and brand them with the names of the city or a local football team, and it is almost always football teams. (Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Cement kiln, southeast Portland

The Lehigh Northwest Cement Co. is located near the large railroad yard in the industrial area of southeast Portland. I always have liked living near railroad yards. They are reminders of what keeps our country’s economic engine moving, and cement producers are always likely neighbors. To me they are strong icons of our industrial economy and fall into the category of photography I embrace focussing on industrial typologies. (Click on the photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Seattle industrial typology study

I have always been fascinated by the forms that our modern building systems display. Exhaust, air, heating, and cooling systems are about as basic systems as one finds, and they usually have a place of prominence on rooftops, unadorned and standing like metallic animals and sculptures. Bernd and Hilla Becher called these forms typologies and made a career highlighting them in their master prints and publications. Check them out if you have never heard of them. They, more than any photographers in a long while, have influenced how I see the world and how I think about the ways we construct our physical environment to suit our economic system. (Click on each photograph to see a larger photo on a separate picture page.)

Port of Seattle icon

The Port of Seattle is surrounded by light and heavy industrial facilities, including a former cement kiln seen here. There are endless forms, shapes, and typologies to photograph and document in this area. I could spend days in these spaces and still never tell their story.

Under the spell of Bernd and Hilla Becher

My current expression through still photography, at this moment in time, remains heavily influenced by the highly acclaimed German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. The husband-wife duo (Bernd has passed on) influenced perhaps the most acclaimed and financially successful photographers of the past 20 years, through their late-in-life work at the “Dusseldorf School of Photography.” The Bernds’ now famous protégé‎s/students include Thomas Ruff and Andres Gursky. The latter is now on record for selling the world’s most expensive photographic print.

The Bernds were deeply enmeshed in showcasing industrial forms, which they arranged later in books and exhibitions as typologies. (Please read my post about their work and their influence.) They also were telling a story of the economy of the times and the industrial West, just as at was on its downward spiral, before the rise of industrial China and India.

My most recent photographic series on Tacoma and the Duwamish River industrial area of Seattle are in some ways indebted to this thinking, about how the industrial ports of the Pacific Northwest are the lands devoted to the overwhelming power of global trade, the last vestiges of Northwest industrial activity, and the world of high-paid blue collar work that is on the verge of extinction in the United States.

Here is the first of two provocative YouTube videos on the Bechers’ work and thinking, in their own words (you can see part two after part one finishes).