The Magic City by Andrew Spear

Andrew Spear was just recognized by College Photographer of the Year as a runner-up for Photographer of the Year and his documentary Glouster, Ohio: The Magic City won an Award of Excellence. I met Spear in Washington D.C. at Obama’s Inauguration in January 2009 and we’ve kept in touch. He is working on a number of great projects and I wanted to share some of his work. I asked him a few questions about “The Magic City” project and his answers are below.

Once known as The Magic City, Glouster was a hub for extractive industries in Southeastern Ohio. A region once known for its large coal deposits, the economy was also rooted in clay, timber and potash extraction as well as brick and shale production. After nearly 150 years of massive success, these industries trickled out through the 1950’s and 1960’s after stripping the region of its resources. 50 years later, the town of Glouster, Ohio is a shadow of its former self. With little opportunity for local employment, many have to commute to neighboring cities for work. What’s left behind is a strong sense of pride in the face of a struggling Appalachian community. Many don’t want to leave, and those that do often find their way back home.

When and where did you start this project?
I started working in Glouster, Ohio early 2009, when I was a junior at Ohio University. I’ve been working in the area just shy of two years now.

Where did the idea come from?
My first year living in Athens, Ohio my friend Noah and I went swimming regularly at a state park about thirty-five minutes from where we lived in and always drove through Glouster to get there. Athens is an interesting dichotomy, created by dropping 20,000+ university students into the middle of Appalachian Ohio. I grew up in a fairly well to do small town in northeastern Ohio and didn’t realize the scope of poverty in the state. There was something about the town- I think the subtle signs that it was once such a bustling place fallen from it’s grandeur. The following year, a friend and I drove out of town on an afternoon to explore, and ended up in Glouster. We found a pizza shop that had proud, historic photographs of the town in it’s former demeanor. Turn of the century mine photographs, school pictures, that sort of thing. What really spoke though, was an image of High Street, the road we were on, in the late 1950’s. The streets were lined with beautiful, brightly colored vehicles and light up signs in front of all the properties lining the streets. I think that’s when I realized how much of an impact the coal mines had on the area- it’s not just the story of an Ohio town, but that of any number of Appalachian communities. I began researching the history of southeastern Ohio, but didn’t engage myself in the project for many more months. The name of the project, The Magic City, is borrowed from a man I met one of the last days in August, just before I moved out of the area. We talked about history for awhile and he went down a mental list of names that Glouster has been called since the beginning, and mentioned that it was referred to as The Magic City at the turn of the century, due to the thriving economy and massive coal deposits.

What is the background on this project? What is the situation in this town? Do you place your project into some larger narrative about Ohio or the United States (poverty, economy, youth, etc?)
Glouster, Ohio is a post-extractive industrial town in southeastern Ohio. The coal mines built the city up in the early-mid 1800’s, and pulled out in the 1950’s after taking all they could. There isn’t much left in the way of opportunity. I don’t currently have plans to integrate this into a larger narrative. I have played with the idea of spending a few more years in Ohio and chipping away at everything that makes Ohio the place that it is, both good and bad. I’ve spent my whole life here, thus far, and feel I have an intimate understanding of the state.

What is guiding you when you are looking for subjects in this community, both in terms of people and ideas?
There are days while working on this that I’ve wandered around looking for telling details and landscapes. Those are the days I feel more introverted, slowing down and trying to tell a story without going for the obvious images. As far as people- I took some time off from shooting last winter and many of my initial contacts had moved when I got back to the project. After that, I spent time in town a few days every week, meeting up with the few people that I did still know. At this point, I was living alone in Athens and didn’t really know many other people my age- they had all graduated, and the town clears out in summer. I began spending time with people in Glouster and became friends with many of those whom I photographed. I was out working one day and I saw a group of people (30+) standing near the post office, and an ambulance had just pulled in. I ran over to see what was happening, and it had turned out my friend Gage’s mother and aunt were overdosing in their vehicle. I spent some time that day with Gage and his younger sister, Chantel, and eventually was invited back to their home. I knew they were a family that had run into many hardships, and I ended up spending most of my time over the following weeks at their home.

What research have you done with this project, both before you begun and as you continue to photograph? Are there inspirations for this project (photographs, art, books, journalism, etc)?
I read Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollack recently- it’s fiction but is based in reality. The author grew up in a holler (read: hollow) in southern Ohio called Knockemstiff, Ohio and the book is a series of short stories about various characters in the holler and their interactions with each other. It helped me understand the mindset of one who grew up in the area. Otherwise, typical research through the library and historical societies as well as digging through information on the internet. I’ve even utilized maps to really figure out the lay of the land and how the surrounding communities were affected by the geography. A group of teenagers took me swimming at an abandoned coal pit one day, and I was able to pinpoint it on a map and then looked further until I found information about how it was actually a separate community called Drakes that had been abandoned for so long there’s not even a remaining ghosttown. Other than that, I’ve got a handful of photographers I keep up on and am always drawing influence from them.

Worth a Look: Daniel Shea and “Removing Mountains”

Friend of dvafoto Andrew Spear directed my attention to the work of Daniel Shea last month, specifically his project Removing Mountains.

Coal, the number one energy-based resource domestically, is often extracted through a process of mountaintop removal mining. Through this process, mountains are literally blown apart to efficiently access coal seams. The physical overburden is pushed into the valleys and streams below, leveling a once dynamic landscape. Through this violent process, coal is eventually extracted, processed, shipped, burned and then distributed through electric grids to much of the United States. Simply turning on the lights suggests a complex matrix of ecological, industrial, and human implications. (link)

Shea is also funding the travel for a related (and also terrific) project called “Plume” entirely though a print sale on his blog, and still has some prints available at great prices to help fund the exhibition of the work later this year in Kentucky.

But don’t stop with just having a look at this project; Shea has a number of other impressive works on his website. And see Pete Brook’s post and interview about Shea’s Baltimore Project over on Prison Photography. Also cool: Shea did a terrific interview with Alec Soth for Too Much Chocolate last year.