The struggling communities of the Mon Valley are not the most fashionable of subjects. But Ross Mantle's In the Wake: Photographs from the Monongahela Valley depicts his mostly beyond-Braddock subjects with a sensibility that feels up-to-the-minute: rich in detail, bold in color and composition, historically acute.
As a semi-resident returnee, Mantle looks with empathy and insight on the Homestead-to-Brownsville axis -- leapfrogging over The Waterfront and such -- creating a nuanced record for which no chamber of commerce would cut a check because the protocols of civic promotion are noticeably absent. But equally absent is the pity of milltown-in-decline documentation.
Mantle returned to find that plenty of people have neither passed on nor moved on, and that he could engage these communities while capturing the visual richness of an accumulated past that many residents undervalue. The history in the background of Mantle's photographs seems to entangle the people depicted, whose expressions are usually somewhere between ruminative and passive.
In a typically unerring composition, "Thomas Roncevic plays accordion for a Vecherinka dance, Homestead, Pennsylvania," the musician wrangles an accordion -- a metaphorical "burden" to my eye -- against a backdrop suggesting a functioning social hall, though one of diminished vitality. In "Michael's trophies, Nana's basement, McKeesport, Pennsylvania," a jumble of celebratory moments, now dust-covered, crowd the frame, almost too much past to be contained.
From establishing shots such as "Sledding in the first snow, Donora, Pennsylvania" to the telling details of "Superman towel in a barber shop, Brownsville, Pennsylvania"-- posters of dated hairstyles, now-collectible chrome chairs, a Superman who's more bodybuilder than classic superhero -- Mantle captures the mood of the place with a certain regret but without lament. Additionally, Mantle puts an artistic and somewhat personalizing spin on things with unframed photographs clipped to designer-hued walls, a collage-like display of abutted pics with video projection, and diaristic writing on the wall, tipping his hand to reveal his interest.
The deals that were done at the expense of these people and towns are not explicit in the photos, but one can bring to them the realization that decline is the result of disinvestment and ramped-up profit-seeking. As we sense the underpopulated space of the Rust Belt, we can almost hear the distant trains that no longer stop here.
IN THE WAKE: PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE MONONGAHELA VALLEY continues through Dec. 31. 707 Penn Gallery, 707 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-325-7017