Reviewer Anthony Squiers:
Anthony is a writer and literary critic. His debut novel, Madness
and Insanity will be released in the fall 2009. Anthony is also
pursuing a Ph.D. in political theory from Western Michigan University
. His research interest is in the social/political thought of Bertolt
Brecht. Click Here to read more of Anthony's archived reviews.
Author: Gary Cialdella
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
The Calumet Region is a forlorn patch of land stretching along the southern strand of Lake Michigan. From the East, it is the post-industrial economic dystopia of a background that paves the way to Chicago. From the West, it is the streaking gray landscape that slowly tapers into the summer playgrounds of suburban Chicago’s petit-bourgeoisie. From both directions it is as though it is only ‘on the way’. Of course one does see signs of life there, motoring through it, even at the icy speeds I-80/90 allows. There is traffic, houses, people. During the hour or so, one transverses it, one must come to the realization that it’s an inhabited place. Among the broken glass, rust and decay of industrial paucity, within the sad buildings that threaten to tumble, people live there, wistfully one imagines. There is a certain contradiction between dispersion and population that strikes your senses here, a demographic chimera of vacant space and people that just doesn’t compute.
In Gary Cialdella’s new collection of photography, The Calumet Region: An American Place this theme is neatly and meticulously explored. Cialdella has captured an intimate portrait of the Calumet Region which is grim, dark and disparaging. No doubt drawing heavily on his experience as an architectural photographer, Cialdella has illustrated, quite precisely this spatial anomaly. He has done it, in part with his variance in point of view and deviation in the depths of his objects of focus. For example, by utilizing multiple points of view, Cialdella is effective in showing the individual within the context of the industrial decay. Shots at eye level provide a glimpse into the dour aesthetics of the region. More distant shots show the viewer the scale of the social moldering.
Overall, Cialdella’s work exposes the fraying seams of late capitalist society and creates a palpable indictment of the whole American system in the process. One photo, in particular really captures this. It is of a blocky, soviet-esque building with six floors and a façade made of wood strips and reflective glass. On the street level, there is a fading sign painted in the window that whispers in worn, ghostly letters “Minas Furniture Co.” Several of the reflective glass panes have been busted out revealing the buildings true façade, a crumbling neo-colonial frontage. By letting us pear into those missing panes and see the extent of disintegration, Cialdella has captured the monster myth of late modern bourgeois society—i.e. we all benefit from global capitalism. No matter how many disguises the bastards put on, Cialdella unmasks the villain, just like the gang of meddling kids from Scooby Doo…
Furthermore, with a style that somehow conflates great despair with reluctant optimism, Cialdella has also depicted the values of the community which prevents the whole damn thing from falling to pieces. Among other things, he presents us with images of churches, a VFW, and a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty. Trite as they may be symbolically, they are the quintessence of Americana. However, in this collection, Cialdella has also shown us the equally important symbols which hover above the churches and veteran halls—the great symbols of capitalism—billboards which offer us hope, billboards which huckster the only true medicinal remedies for our times, booze and strip clubs, cigarettes and fornication! Of course, these things serve the same vocation as the glass and wood façade of Minas Furniture Co. But, what the hell? It’s better than waiting around for the idle steel mill outside your window to reopen…
While this book is a wonderful exposé of late modern capitalism, as impressing as it is distressing there were a few minor detractions. For example, there is, puzzlingly, very little seasonal variation in the collection. Some photos during the bleak winters of that area would have been even more illuminating. Additionally, the overall composition of the book seemed a bit random. Perhaps a more coherent arrangement would have more clearly brought out some of the other, tangential themes, such as the proximity of abodes to the places of industrial production.
Regardless of a few minimal shortcomings, the images in this collection are provocative without being overstated. They are moving but subtle—minimal but expansive. Overall, Cialdella has done a fantastic job visually and thematically, aesthetically and poetically. He has seized a whole portfolio of images which capture so many of the sociological nuances of the Calumet Region that, if nothing else this book surely warrants a spot on your coffee table.