Dangerous Beauty Unveiled in Steel Mills

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Dangerous Beauty Unveiled in Steel Mills


Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Oh, Pennsylvania, what are you to do with those hulking, rusting steel mills?

From the Sears Tower to the Panama Canal -- both containing steel made here in good ol' Pittsburgh -- steel is the stuff our world is built on. But it's also the stuff of history. And while many of Pennsylvania's mills have closed, the steel industry remains both an essential component of our state's heritage and a vital contributor to its economy.

That's why photographer Don Giles decided to focus his lens on Pennsylvania steel mills, visiting three abandoned and three active steel mills in Bethlehem, Steelton, Koppel and Ambridge in 2005 and 2006.

Giles is no ordinary weekend shutterbug. Since 1998, he has worked as staff photographer for The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. Now, more than 60 of Giles' photographs can be seen in "Steel: Made in Pennsylvania," on display at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in Homestead.

Some, like "Charging the Furnace, Mittal Steel," are so intense with spark, fire and flame, you can almost feel the heat coming off the image.

As visitors will see, Giles' photographs of Mittal Steel in Steelton and Koppel Steel in Ambridge and Koppel, just north of Beaver Falls in Beaver County, document what still is a Pennsylvania industry, though on a much smaller scale.

Getting into an active steel mill was no easy task, Giles says. "A lot of the places were not real warm to the idea, and I don't blame them. I mean, who wants a goofy photographer running around, hurting himself in a steel mill?

"They are very dangerous places. Everywhere you look, something is on fire or there is somebody pouring something. It's not a good place to be for people who are not totally aware of their surroundings."

Works like "DC Electric Arc Furnace, Koppel Steel," "DC Electric Arc Furnace, Mittal Steel" and "Continuous Casting, Koppel Steel" are proof that steel production still is very much a part of contemporary life in Pennsylvania. The former two pictures feature furnaces that melt down scrap steel to make it into new extrusions.

About the latter image, in which four tubes of molten steel are being pushed out of a caster, Giles says, "It's kind of like making spaghetti, but out of steel."

Ron Baraff, director of museum collections and archives at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, which helped Giles make contact with mills in the western part of the state, says these images are by far some of the best he has seen in terms of conveying the beauty of the steelmaking process. …

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