A Human Study of the American Rust Belt in Decline During the 1980s

The waterways, roads, and rails of the Rust Belt once channeled steel and coal through the region, the former industrial heartland of America. A manufacturing decline saw the once thriving area fall into economic decay, leaving the new underclass, largely European immigrants and African-Americans who weren’t able to migrate to the Sun Belt and the West, to fend for themselves. This social landscape is the subject of photographer Jack D. Teemer, Jr., who captured the Rust Belt’s working class in the 1980s, packed between the heaving blast furnaces along the hills.

Domestic spaces seep into backyards where barefoot children play amongst scrap piles. A psychic soot seems to cover the neighborhoods. Teemer once described his work as a way of, “exploring and examining the way people define their spaces through formal organization of color, object and shape relationship and detail. While acting as a form of environmental portraiture, they also serve as documents of changing and disappearing social traditions that are unique to each city.” But it’s not an otherness beyond the fences that fixes Teemer’s eye. It’s human understanding.

Jack D. Teemer, Jr.’s photographs from the American Rust Belt are on view at Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California through March 31.