Casting pig iron at the Iroquois smelter

November 21, 2021

Pig iron smelter

High-resolution scans of this image are available at the Library of Congress website

This photograph shows men making pig iron at a place called the Iroquois smelter in Chicago sometime between 1890 and 1901. Molten iron was poured via a central channel to fill the small, regular trenches on the ground to form ingots. Once cooled, the ingots were broken apart from one another and readied for transport or storage.

The smelter's brick structure has church-like arches, and the beams of light flowing through smoke suggest burning incense. The beauty is undeniable.

But this image also contains evil. The same smoke that gives form to light was undoubtedly life-shortening for workers at the smelter.

I’m reminded of this passage from Robert Adams’s essay Photographing Evil from his book Beauty in Photography:

"When we are young, we want art that is filled with the bitter facts, because we believe that evil can be overcome if we face it; when we grow older and begin to doubt this optimistic belief, we want art that does not simply reinforce the pain of our disillusionment.”

Photographs like this one meet the requirements of young and old alike; "[they] urge reform, but seem to suggest that the need for it is not the most important thing to be said of life."