Joseph E. B. Elliott, Professor of Art, Photography
B.S., University of Minnesota
M.F.A., Pratt Institute
I have been Professor of Art at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania, for over thirty years. During this time I have built a professional practice specializing in photography of historic industrial and architectural sites. I have received numerous commissions from the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, University of Pennsylvania, and many private clients and my work is in the collections of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, and several museums and universities. My photographs have been published in Common Ground, Smithsonian, Wired, and Metropolis, as well as several books. Monographs include The Steel, published by Columbia College Press in 2013, Palazzos of Power, forthcoming in 2016 from Princeton Architectural Press, New York, and Philadelphia: The Hidden City, forthcoming in 2017 from Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
Aware of the decline and imminent demise of many traditional steel mills in the United States, I worked with historian Lance Metz to research and photograph the mills in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from 1989 until final shutdown in 1997. Our intent was to create an archive that would preserve for future generations a record of the development, workings, and human dimensions of an integrated steel plant typical of machine age America. During the twentieth century steel took its place as the primary material of the modern built environment. Plants were built on a scale never seen before, with thousands of workers at a single site manning furnaces, forges, and rolling mills around the clock. The cavernous mills rivaled the cathedrals of Europe and the skyscrapers of Manhattan in their monumental spaces. At the close of the twentieth century, many American steel plants had become obsolete, vast remnants of an earlier civilization. Near the end of its life the Bethlehem plant was like a stage set: still working, but inhabited by workers spread thinly over the 1000-acre property. We were able the workings before the last blast furnace went cold in 1995, ending 130 years iron and steel making in the valley. The result of this project is a collection of over 1000 images, providing thorough coverage of the vastness, complexity, and sublime beauty of this massive steel plant. Going beyond artistic expression, the work was conducted in collaboration the architects of Historic American Engineering Record, an office of the National Park Service. While all of the work will be available for study and research through the Library of Congress, The Steel, published by Columbia College Chicago Press in 2012, is a distillation of the most powerful and evocative images from this project.
Palazzos of Power
Four monuments of industrial might loom on the banks of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers in Philadelphia. Power generators of the early twentieth century, two are crumbling ruins, two still hum with contained energy, networked to power and information grids. Their turbine halls are colossal, their detailing magnificent. Within them there is much to explore: turbines, transformers, breakers, boilers. Why were they built this way? Why have they survived? What will the future hold? In the early twentieth century the newness of electricity – its intangibility, danger, and contested status as a commodity – made it an especially challenging subject for architectural representation. In Philadelphia architects and engineers set out to build a system that bespoke “solidity and immensity” to re-assure skeptical consumers. The hearts of the new system were so-called central stations. Harboring huge turbines, their riverside locations facilitated the delivery of coal by barge and rail; and fresh water for cooling and steam production. Coal was hoisted high by cranes to elegant conveyor bridges. Steam emanating from the boilers spun turbines and generators in central stations’ turbine halls, the high-ceilinged show spaces to which visitors were brought. Commencing in 2000, I worked with architectural historian Aaron Wunsch to research and document the early power infrastructure of the Philadelphia Electric Company, attending to both technological innovations and architectural environment. In 2005 we produced Palazzos of Power, an exhibit and catalog for the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. The project is at once the study of a building type, a window upon urban system-building, and a review of the cultural context that brought such great works into being. A new book, Palazzos of Power, by Aaron Wunsch and Joseph E. B. Elliott, will be released in 2016 by Princeton Architectural Press. Wunsch's essay, illustrated with vintage photographs and company material, contextualizes my contemporary photographs and pushes forward the scholarly discourse around industrial architecture and its place in urban America. With high design and production values the book is a work of artistic expression and scholarship.
Philadelphia: The Hidden City
After several years of photographing all sorts of historic structures I began working with Hidden City Philadelphia, a collective local effort to reveal, explore, and document lost and underutilized spaces across the city. In 2009 and again in 2013, I shot photos for HiddenCityPhiladelphia-produced festivals that animated places ranging from a 100-year-old defunct opera house to a former social club and Vaudeville theater. In 2011 the website Hidden City Daily began to publish articles and photographs about the city’s evolving built environment. My third book of photographs, Philadelphia: The Hidden City, edited by Hidden City Daily co-founders Peter Woodall and Nathaniel Popkin will be released in 2017 by Temple University Press. In the book we explore the accreted layers of urban history, as they have built up over 300+ years in Philadelphia. We look at approximately forty sites to focus our narrative out, onto the always evolving and adapting city. It is our firm belief that the most interesting and enticing places in the urban landscape are not the classic landmarks, but rather the prosaic (though certainly beautiful) survivors, flexible buildings that adapt and change as the city demands. Many of those buildings—and the stories they tell—are hidden from everyday view. We look beyond the city's historic core at schools, parks, museums, libraries, factories, houses grand and humble, and the infrastructure of the city. Many continue to serve their original use. Others may not survive, or be completely transformed due to drastic changes in the economy and demography. We want to portray Philadelphia in its fascinating depth, complexity, and contradiction, as it is continually evolving. Site-specific histories will contextualize and broaden our understanding of each particular place.