The fog in the river valley curls out from Pittsburgh and puddles back in to surround you no matter how many times you push it to the side. In those blue-gray early morning moments, when it dresses the potholed streets and clings to the skin of every bus stop congregation, there is a feeling both fleeting and forever—a combination of knowing both the inevitable clearing and coming again of the fog. The cities and towns of Southwestern Pennsylvania show their identities in the same way, working to reinvent themselves while starting each day wearing the memories of what made them. The tension between what was, what is, and what could be runs through the landscape and people. It pulls me in fast. Silences me. I watch and listen.
For me, documentary photography allows a way into conversations and situations I’m curious to experience. Growing up in a small town outside of Philadelphia, if Ben Franklin didn’t touch it or George Washington didn’t cross it, it didn’t make our lessons on local history. While my one week “visit” to Pittsburgh has extended itself to several years, my camera guided an exploration of the history and issues of the area. Patterns in race, economics, culture, and environment began to emerge in the stories people told me along the way, and I work to show those stories in a way that honors their complexity and the visceral mood that wraps them together in my eye.
The photographs in this essay were born from a project I was working on about third class cities under Pennsylvania’s Financially Distressed Municipalities Act, more commonly known as Act 47. Lawmakers say that the legislation, which is meant to stabilize city finances through restructured debt and other measures, has become yet another burden for local leaders. When I started making these pictures, I initially investigated the third class cities of Clairton, Duquesne, and McKeesport. Since my first visit, Clairton has emerged from Act 47 while McKeesport teeters on the edge of financial solvency. And while a place like Clairton did the work to improve its finances under state oversight, a handful of third class cities in the state have been stuck under the designation for more than two decades.
I’ve always been drawn to communities transitioning between eras. Before moving to Pittsburgh, I collected stories in a rural Czech village in south Wallachia where people worked to preserve traditional farming methods and culture as social trends drew people to work in urban centers. I spent time on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, where tribal leaders at Chief Dull Knife College worked to pass down a language and oral history in danger of being lost. Now, I go to the Mon Valley to document the dwindling residents that remain in once-booming steel towns. These are places where a few thousand people bear the duties of caring for cities built for populations three or four or five times their current size. Without economic diversity, local governments struggle with insufficient tax revenue to support the public services, aging infrastructure, and government anatomy of the past. Looking further to the east and west from where the Mon Valley snakes south of Pittsburgh, the culture of coal and natural gas bring their own uneven cycles of boom and bust as rural traditions and landscapes give way to a different kind of life.
As I tell these stories, I’ve been lucky to be on staff as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which trusts me to explore and research on my own while allowing me a platform to share my work day in and day out. It’s increasingly rare to be able to work these kinds of jobs, and the access and stories I’ve been introduced to through the paper have embedded and familiarized me with the community in a way that is invaluable to me as a photographer. As media changes alongside the communities it covers, I hope it encourages a diverse range of voices to contribute to the larger documentary archive we are creating in the region—while honoring the people shaping the culture, environment, and legacy from inside the heart of the Rust Belt.
Stephanie Strasburg is a documentary photographer interested in the people, politics, culture, and landscape of the American Rust Belt. Having grown up outside of Philadelphia, she lived several other lives before settling in Pittsburgh and seriously picking up a camera to tell stories. A staff photographer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, her work has been recognized with numerous national awards and she was named the NPPA Region 3 Photographer of the Year for 2014. Stephanie’s clients include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Vox.com, and she has been published internationally in outlets such as Time Lightbox’s Year in Silhouettes and Photos of the Week, Wired.com, News Photographer Magazine, and the Boston Globe’s The Big Picture. She loves the blue hour at dusk, serendipity, and the art of getting lost.
Storyboard was the award-winning online journal and forum for critical thinking and provocative conversations at Carnegie Museum of Art. From 2014 to 2021, Storyboard published articles, photo essays, interviews, and more, that spoke to a local, national, and international arts readership.