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The Flats

Recent work by documentary photographer Andrew Borowiec focuses on one of Cleveland's iconic settings
July 25, 2016
Off West 3rd Street, the Flats

Tom Hinson Curator of Photography

Off West 3rd Street, the Flats 2002. This sweeping vista locates the flat industrial landscape west of the Cuyahoga River while also identifying an area in the foreground that the photographer will investigate in greater detail in other images—with the Cleveland skyline rising up in the distant background as a touchstone. 2008.123.3


Andrew Borowiec moved to northeast Ohio in 1984 when he joined the art school faculty at the University of Akron, where he still teaches. Having grown up in Europe and North Africa, he had little experience in the United States before attending Haverford College and Yale University. Borowiec’s more than two-decade photographic examination of the uneasy coexistence between humans and their environment in the Midwest began in 1986 after an initial and revealing visit to the Ohio River Valley. It was, he says, “a place unlike any I had known: a landscape dominated by sprawling factories and power plants, with modest towns nestled along the narrow shoreline or clinging to the steep slopes that cradled the river. Clapboard houses with deep front porches and white picket fences, pickup trucks and enormous sedans, back yards with satellite dishes and barbecue grills made from 55-gallon oil drums all seem to be both exotic and authentically American.”

What ensued was a 12-year odyssey of examining, from headwaters to terminus, 981 meandering miles of the Ohio River to better understand the region’s diverse landscape and its inhabitants at the close of the 20th century. Borowiec describes his approach as photographing “everyday places where ordinary people struggle to achieve some semblance of the American Dream.”

This probing investigation of the juncture of industry and domesticity in the landscape ideally prepared Borowiec for an important assignment from the Cleveland-based George Gund Foundation. Graphic designer Mark Schwartz commissioned Borowiec to photograph Cleveland’s industrial landscape for the foundation’s 2002 annual report. Borowiec’s new body of work documented the Flats (Cleveland’s historic industrial area near downtown) and its adjacent neighborhoods. Excited by the unique opportunity to record steel mills, warehouses, and residences before they were destroyed, he expanded his survey, continuing to photograph there for another two years. This distinctive district was once the epicenter of the city’s industrial might, its factories and warehouses connected by a tangled armature of bridges, railroad tracks, and a twisting river surrounded by adjacent neighborhoods where the necessary labor force resided. Over the decades, this dynamic section of the city has been a mecca for photographers, including Margaret Bourke-White with her captivating images of Terminal Tower and the Otis Steel Mill, Godfrey Frankel and his less romantic look at life along the Cuyahoga River, and Lee Friedlander, who included scenes of Cleveland’s industrial landscape in his landmark project, Factory Valleys (1979–80).

Blast Furnace #5 and #6, ISG

Blast Furnace #5 and #6, ISG 2002. This carefully framed composition is a quintessential rendering of Cleveland’s industrial heritage: majestic blast furnaces tower over a Great Lakes ore ship docked in the river. 2009.158.2 


Borowiec’s characteristic working methodology and artistic style, which coalesced early during the making of his images along the Ohio River, are perfectly displayed in his Cleveland photographs. Both provide the foundation for his overarching desire to “make photographs about places.” He is a methodical and persistent stalker, walking up and down streets and in and out of yards in search of the telling image bathed in his favored bright illumination. Precedents for his approach include the great French photographer Eugene Atget, who set the early standard for doggedly pursuing subject matter. For three decades at the beginning of the 20th century, Atget returned to favorite sites year after year during all seasons to create some 10,000 descriptive, luminous, and often poetic images of Paris and its environs. When looking at Borowiec’s beautifully printed black and white photographs taken in the residential areas of Ohio City, Tremont, and Slavic Village, one also is reminded of Walker Evans’s landmark documentary pictures of laborers and their home life from the 1930s. Finally, Borowiec’s abiding interest in how the built environment intersects with the natural environment is a distinguishing characteristic of the outstanding landscape work of Frank Gohlke, with whom he studied at Yale.

Canal Road, the Flats

Canal Road, the Flats 2002. The composition displays Borowiec’s pleasure in rendering a specific place, often a messy, dense mix of contrasting angles, shapes, and patterns of light and shade. 2008.123.33


Any given image from the Cleveland series is a blend of documentary record and artistic expression. During succeeding years and changing seasons, Borowiec compiled image after image to form a captivating, layered story about a pivotal industrial area and its adjacent neighborhoods through descriptive photographs of its original physical appearance and what it had become by the early 2000s. The viewer has the sensation of being taken on a personal tour of the area by the photographer, carefully led through favorite alleyways, down quiet streets, and into the private spaces of backyards. The result is a better appreciation and understanding of the places where we live and work and the complexity of issues—social to cultural, economic to environmental—that they represent.

From a larger body of work, 87 black and white photographs were handsomely reproduced in Borowiec’s fourth publication, Cleveland: The Flats, the Mill, and the Hills in 2008. The only complete set of these images was generously presented to the museum by Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz in honor of James and Hanna Bartlett. From this wealth of material, the current exhibition of some 40 images will be on view in the photography galleries until October 17. In 2006 Borowiec received the Cleveland Arts Prize for the Visual Arts. The museum pays honor to the 50th anniversary of this storied organization’s support of northeast Ohio artists and its promotion of public awareness of these artists’ significant contributions to the region’s quality of life.  

All images are gelatin silver prints, 32.3 x 47.8 cm. Gift of Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz in honor of James and Hanna Bartlett. All images © Andrew Borowiec.

Cleveland Art, July/August 2010