Shorpy.com is without a doubt the finest high resolution photo archive available online. Their collection holds thousands of 8×10 plate glass negatives, all meticulously scanned and retouched, revealing an enthralling portrait of America from the Civil war through WWII unlike any you’ve seen before.
As was common for the era, most images are group portraits or carefully positioned city-scapes crafted to show the very best of prosperity and industrialization. Highlighting some of this style, a previous collection featured here on Rebel Metropolis titled ‘Examining Street Life Before the Automobile‘ revealed vibrant metropolitan thoroughfares prior to the domination of the car.
When perusing Shorpy’s archive, what stands out overall, inevitably, are the blatant class divides of the period, the abject racism, the sub-human status placed on women – far more so than today. Just as alarming are the frank depictions of rabid and unrelenting environmental destruction. The wood and steel infrastructure destined for booming metropolises is shown ripped from the earth, burned into the air, forged into capital while anything unprofitable gets poured back into the ground, smothering soil with toxic heavy metals.
This was decades before the EPA or the Clean Water & Air Acts, for what they’re worth. The term environmentalist didn’t yet exist. Barely had the idea of conservation, much less naturalism become mainstream. What mattered was amassing vast sums of money through resource extraction, often via immigrants, children, and those whose freedom from slavery existed in title alone.
Injury and death were commonplace. Laborers endured inhalation of fumes, collapsed mines, drownings, limb dismemberment, immolation – these were facts of workers’ lives. Those who survived still suffered work days often exceeding 14 hours surrounded by massive, deadly machines.
Indeed, the gargantuan structures that comprised the coal and timber industries alone – with their deafening motors and colossal moving parts must have seemed like titans from another planet. It’s no wonder Orson Wells’ adapted radio play of ‘War of the Worlds’ convinced so many Earth was literally under attack by alien life.
Seeing every last bit of life hacked down, mutilated into weapons or a fortress. Seeing the sky turned black by plumes of putrid gas. Industrial waste littering the ground. The land tortured and scarred until nothing left living is visible. Adults shell-shocked by daily misery, and children somehow oblivious to it all. These are painful sights to witness.
The hellscapes pictured below are augmented by the clarity and rich tones unique to the properties of film. Even more, bellows cameras of this era possessed the ability to alter foreshortening of depth, rending structures 3-dimensional, monolithic, and even more otherworldly.
Sadly, little has changed in our generation besides the location of extraction. Most heavy industry left Western cities, relocating to the third world or to remote natural habitats far from the conscience of the global North. Capitalists have found it easier to operate out of sight.
To appreciate the astonishing depth and scale of the destruction displayed in these photographs, click on each to view at full size. On even large monitors, most span several screens wide.
Above: Ensley, Alabama – C. 1906
All images courtesy Shorpy.com.