The history of Gary and other Lake Michigan communities – in many ways, the history of Northwest Indiana as a whole – is a story forged in steel and etched in the faces of those who spent their lives making it. Now, two Indiana University Northwest faculty members, Associate Professor of Fine Arts Gary S. Wilk, Ph.D., and Calumet Regional Archives Curator Stephen G. McShane, have brought that history to life in “Steel Giants: Historic Images from the Calumet Regional Archives” (Indiana University Press, 2009).
The book is filled with photographs, some more than 100 years old, depicting the construction and operation of U.S. Steel’s Gary Works and the Inland Steel plant in East Chicago. McShane contributed the text, which details the mighty effort to transform a swath of Lake Michigan shoreline into the mill district and adjacent communities that would help to build 20th-century America.
Wilk and McShane selected the photographs from a vast collection of Inland and U.S. Steel images that have been donated to the archives by various sources during more than 30 years. Many of these photos were taken on 8x10 glass negatives, and some date back as far as 1906.
Wilk noted that many of the book’s photographs look their age and bear the imperfections of images taken so long ago. Though the collection has been preserved in digital format, McShane and Wilk have resisted the temptation to gloss over such flaws.
“Some people have asked why we didn’t we clean up the images,” Wilk said. “I mentioned to Steve that I thought there was a certain sense of history and character in leaving those flaws in there. Historically, we’re dealing with a time period that is slightly over a century old, and I just thought it sort of added to the appeal of where these things come from.”
“Steel Giants” took about two years to put together from the time McShane and Wilk received approval for their proposal from IU Press until the time the book was published this summer. But both men have been working with the expansive U.S. Steel and Inland Steel photo collections for many years. The book contains 278 black-and-white and 32 color photographs, along with a foreword by “Making Steel” author Mark Reutter.
“Steel Giants” also contains a reproduction of a 1911 sales booklet that Inland Steel used to tout its product.
“We wanted to include it in the book because, for anybody who doesn’t know how steel is made, it’s a very helpful guide,” McShane said.
The selection process itself was daunting, he explained, because there were so many images to choose from. The book’s authors aimed for a balanced mixture of pictures that represented both the grandeur of the mills’ industrial drama and the lives of the people who built and operated them.
“All of this kind of played into our selection process for the photos, to capture history and photography and the drama of steelmaking as best we could in the images that we selected,” McShane said. “While we were working intensely on the book … I was working on a related project to digitize some of the Inland photographs. It was a blessing to have that other work going at the same time, (because) we were able to see better some of the Inland images. That collection is much bigger than the U.S. Steel photograph collection. There are a lot of books available to be written just on the Inland stuff.”
Wilk’s father was a career mill employee, and Wilk himself worked the mills during his summers in college during the 1960s. The photography professor expressed profound respect for the hardy men and women who put Gary and East Chicago at the forefront of American industry, and who continually work to keep Northwest Indiana’s steel economy churning.
“I just think it’s amazing, what they put up with and what they go through on a daily basis,” Wilk said. “It’s hard to fathom and understand it, unless maybe in some way you had experience with that. It’s really something to be able to go in there and do the types of jobs that these people have done.”
Wilk also commended the long-ago photographers who probably never expected that their photographs would be published 100 years after the fact. Camera equipment was anything but portable at the turn of the 20th century, he said, and some of the shots on display in “Steel Giants” required an arduous investment of time and effort to obtain.
“The 8x10 view camera (used in the early 1900s) was a fairly big, bulky piece of equipment,” Wilk said. “The tripods also had to be a bit big and bulky to hold that piece of equipment. When you weigh the tripod and the camera, you’re probably talking somewhere between 40 and 45 pounds. But the glass-plate negatives are also extremely heavy.
“There is actually a series of images in the book that kind of create this one scene, and if you look at the date, it was taken in January,” he continued. “If you’ve ever been out on the lake on a blustery, cold, frigid day, and you’re getting that wind, it’s absolutely horrific. And this photograph is actually more of an aerial view from U.S. Steel where they photographed the western portion, and then the middle portion, and then the eastern portion of the steel mill. (The photo) was taken off of a catwalk, and it was probably 75 or 100 feet up in the air. I marveled over the thought of how this photographer must have lugged this equipment up to that point.”
Wilk and McShane will sign copies of “Steel Giants” at two upcoming local events. The first, on Saturday, Dec. 12, will take place at Barnes and Noble on U.S. 30 in Merrillville from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. The second will take place at the IU Northwest Savannah Gallery and Barnes and Noble Campus Bookstore on Thursday, Dec. 17, with a formal program set for 4 p.m. and a signing beginning at 4:30 p.m. and lasting until 6:30 p.m.
Copies of “Steel Giants” will be available for purchase at both events. The book is also available at the Barnes and Noble Campus Bookstore, at Barnes and Noble and Borders retail locations, and online at BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com, and at the Indiana University Press Web site at www.iupress.indiana.edu.