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Rust: Photography Adventures in an Abandoned Steel Mill

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For more of Alyssha Eve Csük’s photography, see our online gallery.

Early-morning shot of rain puddles, bright with iron oxide, evaporating on Bethlehem Steel trestle.
Photo by Alyssha Eve Csük

The rustiest place in America is not open to the public. Patrolled by private security guards and town police, the site is enclosed by a tall chain-link fence, which bears these warnings:

PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED
NOTICE: THIS AREA UNDER SURVEILLANCE
DANGER
KEEP OUT
PELIGRO

The place is the Bethlehem Steel Works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Once the world’s second-largest steel producer, it has been rusting since the middle of the Civil War, when iron was first made there. Until the mid-1970s, when dust filters arrived, rust from “the Steel” coated the surrounding city, too. It settled on windshields and windowsills and prevented residents from hanging laundry out to dry. Old steelworkers, correlating more rust with more steel production, swear they could tell from the thickness of the rust how big their paychecks would be. In 1995, with the American steel industry in shambles, the paychecks stopped, and the last blast furnace shut down. Since then, the place has done nothing but rust.

Now, from the air, the abandoned complex looks like a decrepit brown castle in an otherwise green city.

One woman is exceptionally familiar with the place. Her name is Alyssha Eve Csük. (Her last name rhymes with book.) The granddaughter of a steelworker, she is a photographer. She photographs rust. She is, as far as I know, the only person who makes a living finding beauty in rust. As such, I joined her at the motherlode — which she calls her playground — on a snowy late-November day to see how she does it.

Her work, which has been featured in photo magazines and The New York Times, hangs in galleries and private homes and corporation lobbies. Corrosion, as Csük sees it, isn’t brown and dreary, nor does it suggest age and decay. When she zooms in on metal, she captures speckled reds, lumpy yellow waves, green crests, serrated blues, orange slashes.

Making art requires bending rules, and the same goes for Csük and her rust art. Technically, she has permission to enter the fenced-off steelworks — property now owned by the Bethlehem Sands Casino Resort — as long as she stays on the ground level. When this does not appeal to her, which is often, she sneaks in. With me, she snuck in.

Rust

The side door of a blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel that ti Csuk “looked like flowers in a field.”
Photo by Alyssha Eve Csük

Csük drove us over the Lehigh River and parked near the New Street Bridge. Under the bridge, we crossed five sets of railroad tracks, then ascended the grassy levee separating the tracks from the river, and took a right. A half-mile ahead, five 200-foot blast furnaces loomed. Csük walked toward them with purpose.

Five minutes afterward, in the shadow of the Steel, a few obstacles stood in our path. The first was a train, stacked two high with containers, parked on the middle track. Fortuitously, it blocked us from sight. Csük looked both ways and then slid down the slippery levee and climbed up and over it. I followed close behind. She looked both ways again, and jogged over to the second obstacle, the chain-link fence. When she realized that we had left footprints in the snow, she stepped back and tried to brush them away, which only made them worse. From there, we walked along the fence in gravelly spots, so as not to leave footprints. I followed her a bit farther — past the no-trespassing signs — and then, just before noon, we climbed up and over.

In 1995, with the American steel industry in shambles, the last blast furnace shut down. Since then, the place has done nothing but rust.

Over the next five hours, I watched Csük wander around a maze-like industrial complex calmly and boldly, without a map, in search of aesthetic minutiae that most people miss entirely. To reach good vantage points, she scampered atop a large pipe, 30 feet up, and along a giant crane, even higher. She set up her tripod seven times and took 69 exposures.

First, she hurried through a courtyard overgrown with shrubs and vines and littered with glass shards and old buckets. Massive brown tanks loomed above. She hurried because she was not comfortable out in the open, where she was visible. She made her way to blast furnace D, her favorite. Then she climbed a few steep flights of rusty stairs. Immediately, on the streaked wall of an enormous gas stove, she saw something appealing. A layer of metal pipes had been removed from the stove and tossed into a huge pile on the ground, and now a new rusty surface was visible.

Old steel mill

Bethlehem Steel
Photo by Alyssha Eve Csük

She said, “There’s something beautiful here. I don’t know if it’ll fit my format. I’ll have to see it with my camera. This is probably just gonna be a sketch.” She opened the tripod and placed it on a metal grate. She put her camera — a 24–105 millimeter — on the tripod and zoomed to 100 millimeters and raised the tripod a hair. “Just like I thought, this really doesn’t fit my format. There’s the potential for something. The image is just a square, but I’m trying to make it fit.”
Csük might spend 15 to 45 minutes fiddling with a composition. In this case, she could tell it wasn’t worth it. Before she packed up, she looked at me and asked, “Did you hear that?” I told her I thought it was the sound of a motorcycle somewhere in town. She said, “Sometimes, things fall here.” She told me later that 30- or 40-pound objects — heavy enough to guarantee death — rain down regularly.

Csük climbed another flight of stairs and walked to a spot where more light struck the stove. She walked slowly, with her head tilted a bit to the left. She said, “I wish we had more of this going on, like a whole brigade of this. Over here is beautiful. I gotta shoot this.” I looked, saw no formation — brigade or platoon or even a mere patrol. She continued, “This was stuff I never got to see before, because it was all covered up. And this’ll weather more, ’cause it’s all exposed.” Positioning the tripod back a few feet, she hunched on both knees. Then she moved the tripod a few inches. She looked through the viewfinder and moved the camera a few more inches. She looked again, and moved the camera a bit to the right. Then a few inches back. Then up a hair. Then to the right a hair. Then up a bit. Finally, with a shutter-release cable on a 3-foot cord held in her right hand, she took a shot. “It’s funny bringing life from something so lifeless,” she admitted, Csük has had plenty of run-ins and close calls at the Steel. She’s nearly bumped into all kinds of vagrants and wanderers, and always spotted them before they spotted her. Once, up on a crane with only one way down, she heard voices in the room below her. She stood still for a half hour until the men left. On a different occasion, she nearly crossed paths with a lunatic from West Chester, who shortly thereafter was arrested and found to be in possession of many guns.

Image

“I am an artist fascinated by places that embody bygone industry, where I can explore the ravages of time,” says Csük. (csukphotography.com)
Photo courtesy Alyssha Eve Csük

While poking around with another photographer in 2005, she suffered her closest call. In blast furnace E, she encountered a handful of people, and the pair ran to hide in a dark corner of blast furnace D. On her way through the cavernous room, she fell through a rectangular hole where casts of molten iron were once drained from brick channels into railroad cars below. According to the other photographer, one moment Csük was there, and the next she was mostly gone. “Had it not been for her backpack and camera and tripod, she’d have fallen down to the bottom,” he told me, “far enough to kill her.” The photographer grabbed Csük by the armpits and pulled her out. She’d smashed an expensive Linhof lens and scraped her left leg, but suffered no other injuries. The other photographer now calls her Indiana Jane.

Csük told me to follow her. She led the way down dark staircases, around corners — none of it familiar. From a ledge, she looked west, pointed to a giant exhaust valve inside a cage of beams, and said, “Oh wow. I wish I could photograph that.” She couldn’t get it because her tripod needed to be stationary, on terra firma.

Csük made her way higher, to a perch with an expansive view. She looked out at snowy roofs, admiring the way snow collected on different surfaces, angles, features. Off of one spot, the wet snow avalanched, leaving stripes. On another, the snow caught drips and appeared speckled. “I’m just taking it all in,” she said. She has no problem standing somewhere and looking and looking and looking. She’s patient.

Metal cabinet
Photo by Alyssha Eve Csük

Halfway down a ramp, Csük saw something. “Wow, it’s beautiful. If you just shift your angle, all these colors come out.” She positioned her camera, took a few frames, and said, “A lot of people would say, ‘I got it.’ I don’t feel like I got it.” Then: “I’m never done with it. I just keep coming back.”

Csük was first officially granted access to the Steel in 2004 by a local developer. When the Sands acquired the land, the new owners were impressed. “They just never knew that rust could be beautiful,” Csük said. “They say, ‘I just never saw rust that way before.’”

Recognizing the obsessed visionary in their presence, the casino hired Csük to document the redevelopment of the steelworks. Redevelopment meant destruction of the place that had enthralled her for years. From 2007 through 2009, all but one of the buildings surrounding the blast furnaces — the mills, the foundries, the forges, the tool shop, the machine shop, the basic oxygen furnace, open hearth furnace, the electric furnace, the Bessemer converter, the sales office — were gutted, destroyed, and leveled. Parking lots were paved in their place. Unobtrusive landscaping was installed. Around the blast furnaces — the only sacred thing remaining, according to Csük — a fence was erected.

Rust

Instrument box
Photo by Alyssha Eve Csük

Csük documented this massive transformation, thinking a book would come out of it. She says it was like watching a slow death. Many of these images, in her collection Industrial Steel, seem reverential, as if the steelyard were an iconic peak or pristine canyon. The environs and their contents are clear: walls, rooms, cranes, coils of wire. They’re shot like landscapes, at dawn, at dusk, under moonlight, in fog, under a blanket of snow. Csük says she spent hours just watching how the light changed on the yards.

Documenting the demolition of the place where she’d become a photographer was just as difficult to reconcile. It forced her to focus on more than just steel and rust and to branch out — into slate and scrap yards and trees. She did this so that her spirit wouldn’t die. Then the economy tanked, and the Sands put the book idea on the back burner.

Now that the blast furnaces are all that remain, any further damage is traumatic. Trespassers have vandalized parts of it. Copper thieves have stolen bits and pieces of it. Set producers on the movie Transformers 2 have transformed part of it. Death, as the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, is the mother of beauty, but only to a point. Hours before, when she climbed to the fourth floor of blast furnace D and noticed that metal pipes had been removed from the stove, she’d looked down, and said, “Oh my gosh, look at that pile. That’s the guts being ripped out. It’s sad.” She wants the Steel to suffer a natural death, not an accelerated, assisted, man-made one.

Quarter panel of 1975 Lincoln Town Car
Photo by Alyssha Eve Csük

Depending on their size, Csük’s images sell for $800 to $3,200. She sold somewhere between 100 and 200 prints in 2012. She sold one, 42 inches by 96 inches and printed on metal, for $30,000. When I first held one, at her studio, I was almost convinced the image was 3-D, on account of its richness.

“This makes you think of a kite of color, of shapes,” she said. “A lot of people look at my stuff, and they know it’s rust, but they never think it’s rust. It can’t be too literal.”

Now, with me, Csük had gotten excited about a long, cavernous space beneath the elevated track, because in the winter the space harbors huge icicles, and she led the way down to it. Before the final staircase, she warned, “You gotta be careful. People can see you here.”

Like an old sage, she walked casually through a dark room with black paint peeling off a maroon-and-yellow patch of metal. “This at one time was cobalt blue,” she said. “Cobalt blue. It’s just amazing how it’s changed over the years.” She walked around a furnace and behind massive slag cars — now cauldrons full of green, slushy water. She jumped down a three-foot ledge, and then proceeded into a courtyard, where she looked up at the side of a building. A flock of geese flew overhead, following the river. For a second, their squawking sounded like voices.

All of a sudden, the Bethlehem Steel Works seemed like a historical artifact, as impressive as a pyramid. A few hundred feet away stood blast furnace A, the oldest standing blast furnace of its kind in America. Of Bethlehem, its president in the early 20th century, Charles M. Schwab, used to say he wasn’t in business to make steel but to make money. Bethlehem made plenty of money, but it also made bank vaults, battleships, rail ties, and the enormous 140,000-pound axle at the center of Ferris’s famous wheel. The company built the USS Lexington, America’s second aircraft carrier. That beam captured in the iconic 1932 black-and-white photo, with 11 workers sitting on it, eating a carefree lunch 800 feet above New York City: that’s Bethlehem Steel steel.

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Blast furnace door
Photo by Alyssha Eve Csük

By 4:30, there was time for only one more shot. She made her way toward the formerly cobalt panel. The best vantage point, she determined, was tricky to get to: up a flight of stairs, down a 10-foot ladder, over a grate, and onto a 4-foot pipe. From there, she’d traverse 40 feet out, using smaller gas pipes as railings, and then follow the pipe where it bent up at 30 degrees. Following behind Csük, I reached down from the top of the ladder to pass her the tripod. The big pipe reminded me of the Alaska pipeline. It was the same size, about as snowy, but it was 30 feet up above concrete and steel instead of 4 feet above tundra.

Getting out turned out to be tougher than getting in. I climbed over the fence first. Once over, Csük passed me her backpack and then climbed over. She made it fewer than 10 feet before she said, “Did you hear that?” It was the sound of a car on gravel — which meant a security patrol. Though Csük couldn’t see anything where the sound had come from, she decided to hustle. She skirted along the fence, and then across the tracks, and onto the levee. I followed.

Suddenly Csük froze. A train was stopped under the bridge, exactly where we wanted to cross. Beside the train, guiding it into position, were two railroad employees. “You do not wanna mess with those guys,” Csük said.

Alyssha Eve Csük — so experienced in patiently extracting beauty from this unfriendly, forsaken place — decided that the most prudent thing to do was make a beeline for terra publica. She slipped down the snowy grass, crossed the tracks, and looked both ways.

Then she ran.

From Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman. Copyright © 2016 by Jonathan Waldman. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 

Jonathan Waldman’s writing has appeared in Wired, Slate, Outside, and The New York Times, among others.

This article is featured in the July/August 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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