'No Job No Home No Peace No Rest" speaks of decline of American society
Will Steacy creates photographs that are powerful enough to bring many to tears. Whether it be an image of a young mother who must raise her children on her own because the father is in prison, a burned-out car underneath a bridge in Los Angeles, or a vacant lot where a proposed high-rise would have been built if not for the result of the housing bubble gone bust, Steacy has a way of making his images convey the pain felt, or even caused, by his subjects.
Currently, all of those images and more are on display in the exhibit “No Job No Home No Peace No Rest: An Installation by Will Steacy” at Silver Eye Center for Photography on the South Side.
Born in Philadelphia to a father who is an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a mother who is a schoolteacher, Steacy received a bachelor of fine arts in photography degree from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and went on to work as a union laborer before becoming a photographer.
His photographs have been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums across the country and are included in several books. In 2008, he was selected by powerHouse Books and the Center for Documentary Studies for “25 Under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers,” and was awarded a prestigious Tierney Fellowship.
Currently, Steacy lives and works in New York City. But he recently came to Pittsburgh to install a massive collage in the front gallery at Silver Eye for his exhibit. That collage, which he calls “The Beast,” is all of 170 feet long and overwhelming to say the least. It is arranged in four rows and comprised of various photographs, newspaper clippings, found objects and text blocks that Stacy himself has positioned to read like blaring tabloid headlines.
Many of the photographs featured in “The Beast” are from Steacy's most recent project, “Down These Mean Streets,” which focuses on America's crumbling cities. For it, he worked in a set routine, walking from the airport to the central business district of each city he was photographing. And always, he did this at night, equipped only with a large-format camera.
“My focus was on the neighborhoods you wouldn't want to be in at night,” Steacy says, “the part of town you drive through, not to.”
Steacy began the project in 2008, at the height of the housing crisis, with the intention, he says, “of addressing the abandonment and neglect of America's inner cities and what happens when these inner-city communities are left without the resources to repair themselves.”
“The project is a metaphor for America, particularly where we are today. It's dark. We're stuck on a dark street without a map for trying to find our journey forward,” he says.
As for “The Beast,” Steacy says, “It involves the past, understanding the essence of history and the consequences of our actions, decisions, etc., that have led to the current situation we find ourselves in.”
That's why, with this exhibit, Steacy has made sure that when you enter the gallery, you are smack dab in the middle of the belly of “The Beast” first, before you see the remaining 32 photographs on display individually.
“The collage is the story of the American dream from (the perspective of) those who have been left behind,” Steacy says. “My goal in creating it is to create a document which we, our country, our community and everyone who sees this has the opportunity to look ourselves in the mirror, and in doing so to not only look at where we are now and where we've come to after the past four years, but ... the 30-year journey of consequences that led us to where we are now.”
For Steacy, that means evoking everything from the Reagan administration to the current election in blaring headlines cut directly from newspapers or cobbled together in his own inimitable fashion to underline certain talking points, like arranging the headline “Made in the U.S.A.” above words “The Outsourced Life.”
All of this, Steacy says, speaks of the slow and steady downfall of an American society that will leave very little for the next generation. “It's about the slow decline of the American dream, to the point where you're locked out,” he says.
For nearly 10 years, Steacy has been creating photographic work that has dealt with contemporary social and economic issues like these. But somewhere along the line, he says, using a camera wasn't enough to convey what he felt when photographing his subjects.
“In many ways, the photograph and the camera were limiting to me,” he says. “I wasn't able to use those tools to necessarily tell the story that I wanted to tell, and in the detail that I wanted to tell it. That is, being able to combine the past and present in one document.”
“Over the years, text and writing became more important to me than film in the camera,” he says. “And this is the eventual accumulation of that idea, having words and stories being able to also exist as the photographs themselves. Being able to combine them all as one.”
For him, having come from five generations of newspapermen, as well as currently working on a project documenting the newspaper industry over the past four years, he says, “I see the newspaper as not only a mirror to America, but through the daily account of facts and the past day's events, is ultimately the best history book there is. Whether it be liberal or conservative, it is the voice of the people.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.