Silver Eye exhibit captures the raw space of defunct furnaces in Rankin

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 7:32 p.m.

If you can't bring the people to the crucible, bring the crucible to the people.

The exhibit “Carrie Furnaces: Contemporary Views” at Silver Eye Center for Photography on the South Side features 51 photographs by 32 photographers taken at Carrie Furnace, the historic blast furnace site located in Rankin.

Defunct since 1978, the Carrie Furnaces were built in 1884 across the river from the Homestead Steel Works. All that is left of the site now are remnants of buildings and furnaces No. 6 and No. 7, which operated from 1907 to 1978.

The furnaces have since been designated a National Historic Landmark (2006). But few go there. Part of the reason is that it is still very much raw space, as visitors to this exhibit will surely come to recognize in photographs that feature lots of rusted metal and graffiti-covered walls.

“Carrie Furnace is a spectacle. It is mysterious,” says photography instructor Ivette Spradlin, who has been leading fellow photographers, novice and professional, to the site on what she calls “photo safaris” since August 2011. She also has taken her classes from Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh Filmmakers there on field trips.

All of the photos in the exhibit came from an open call for entries held by Silver Eye from June through July. A total of 332 photographs were submitted by 77 photographers, most of whom had followed Spradlin through the site.

The grounds are massive and hard to cover in less than three hours. So, Spradlin says giving fellow safarigoers some direction and helping them keep in mind some intention was essential for a productive session.

“I often tell students or participants to think of one word that they think of when they look at Carrie Furnace, and let that word guide them while photographing there,” Spradlin says. “Their words are often something like: old, historic, industrial, huge, transforming, manmade, deteriorating, abandonment, progress, rust, or even shadow and Ironhorse.”

Spradlin says all of those words describe the furnaces, and they are without a doubt the reasons why so many are drawn to photographing it.

For example, both Howard Grill's “Carrie Furnace II” (2011) and David Kissell's “Molten Trough” (2012) take visitors into the belly of the beast, playing up the massive scale of Furnace No. 7 through views that are up-close and seemingly personal.

Brad Fetchin takes this notion even further with “The Haunt” (2013), for in it he has captured a stream of light flowing through one of the troughs leading out of the furnace, like the molten slag that once ran there.

And Kevin Tomasic shows the massive cooling towers that flank the furnace in “Hills, Stoves, and Sky” (2013).

Spradlin says people also are interested in documenting the ways the site has been or is being transformed and repurposed. The graffti-covered walls are captured in several shots by Becky Zahn, and Rob Schwerdt's “Deer Face” (2011) features a 45- by 35-foot antlered deer head completed by Industrial Arts Co-op in October 1998 from recycled materials found on the site.

Some of the pieces are set further afield, such as Ohad Cadji's “Molten Metal Express” (2013), which features a railcar that once carried molten metal over to the Homestead site, now sitting abandoned in a field.

Spradlin says that many of her fellow photographers think of Carrie Furnace as a link to our past, “in particular Pittsburgh's past, and, for some visitors, it plays a part in their own family's narrative,” she says.

That's obvious in Scott Goldsmith's “Time Stopped” (2012), which shows a broken time-clock where workers once punched in to begin their shifts, as well as photographs by Ryan Keene and Robert G. Myers, which feature a pair of goggles and a hard hat respectively.

“Many people photograph to ‘capture' something, to possess it, to call it their own, and to feel connected to and a part of something larger than themselves,” Spradlin says. “Carrie offers a multitude of ways to reflect, it is historical, it is political, it is ominous and awe-inspiring, and although it has been stripped of its original purpose, it continues to evolve.”

The show culminates with Spradlin's own piece, “Ashley by the Carrie Furnace in Rankin, PA” (2011), which at 40 by 50 inches is the largest in the exhibit. It features an overall view of the site, as seen from a path leading up to it. On the path is a young woman, a friend of Spradlin who is completing a doctorate degree at Carnegie Mellon.

“In the summer of 2010, someone had taken me down to that spot to pick up colorful pieces of glass for me to use in a mosaic,” Spradlin says. “I had never been inside Carrie Furnace when I photographed Ashley there. At that time, Carrie Furnace represented something that seemed to exemplify a part of Pittsburgh's landscape to me. The Carrie Furnace didn't have the meaning that it holds with me today after having learned so much about it. At the time, it was an element of the landscape, something strong, powerful, and mysterious, like the train going by, and like Ashley.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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