"For all the Americans barely making ends meet, who have been left behind in the ashes of the Great Recession and whose struggle goes unnoticed. ... For those who worked hard to support their families and put food on the table every night, played by the rules all their lives and who have watched the promise of the great American Dream slip away right before their eyes. ... For all those suffering in the shadows, whose plight has been the human consequence of reckless greed and neglect. ...
"This is for you."
That passionate dedication was written for a mammoth work at the center of the exhibition, "No Job No Home No Peace No Rest: An Installation by Will Steacy" at Silver Eye Center for Photography on the South Side. The artist, a widely published photographer, has long been a critical observer of the changing U.S. social landscape from the outside in and, more recently, from the inside out.
Mr. Steacy, 32, "is among the most important photographers, artists and thinkers of his generation," said Ellen Fleurov, Silver Eye executive director and exhibition co-curator, at a well-attended opening reception Friday.
The exhibition focal point, which the artist refers to as "The Beast," is a 171-foot long collage, spanning two walls, of newspaper images and headlines, his own photographs and texts, and the occasional found object. Its subject is the promise of the American Dream -- a better life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- and the gradual erosion of the possibility of attaining it.
The work, recently completed and shown for the first time in its entirety, has been purchased by Annette and Peter Nobel of Zurich, of the famed Peace Prize family. Also exhibited are 32 recent photographs.
While the textual and visual imagery of "The Beast" refer to individual events, the compilation is a critique of policy, from the 19th-century dispersion of Western lands to contemporary easy credit, that invites Americans to take a hard look at where we are and where we're going.
"We wanted an exhibition that would provoke, be visually fascinating, that wouldn't necessarily be partisan but wouldn't be neutral either, in this election season," Ms. Fleurov said. "There's no irony in here, at least that I can see. It's an equal-opportunity look at our country."
Elsewhere in the gallery, individual photographs tell stories unlikely to be brought up by mainstream political candidates, exhibition co-curator Leo Hsu pointed out.
A closed Detroit factory stands in quiet isolation at night, its windows boarded and walls encroached upon by weed trees. A bottle in a brown paper bag sits next to a worn sofa on a San Francisco curb, in front of a graffitied wall. A sign painted large on a brick building reads: "Everything for the home! Your credit is good."
"All my work deals with social and economic issues," Mr. Steacy said. He thinks it's imperative to look at history and examine the actions that led to the consequences reflected in his photographs, so as to not repeat mistakes.
The abstract becomes personal when he considers the professions of his mother and father, and how different the outlook was when they began their careers as teacher and journalist. The future of the country "depends on how we educate our children now," Mr. Steacy said. "Journalism is the fourth branch of government, keeping a close watch on politicians, institutions, businesses and so forth.
"I guess I'm my parents' son. I value our country, and the investment in our future."
Mr. Steacy, who earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from New York University, was named one of Photo District News' 30 Emerging Photographers To Watch in 2011. His work has been featured on CNN, NPR and the BBC, in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper's and The Guardian (London), among others. His books include this year's critically well-received "Photographs Not Taken," evocative descriptions by professional photographers of charged moments when humaneness overrode the instinct to shoot. He was a union laborer before pursuing photography.
He was born in New Haven, Conn.,and grew up in Philadelphia, where he lives once again, having moved from East Village in Manhattan to his parents' home at Christmastime.
Journalism has been in Mr. Steacy's family for five generations. His great-great-great-grandfather started the York Daily in 1870 and his grandfather was editor of the Call-Chronicle in Allentown. Mr. Steacy was in the middle of a four-year documentation of the Philadelphia Inquirer when his father, an editor at the paper for almost 30 years, was laid off.
"From a newsroom that was already a skeleton, it was unimaginable. How can they keep cutting staff? But it had to be done. Newsrooms across the country have been through so much. Internally, the newspaper is a mirror of the rest of society."
Mr. Steacy said it's scary to think of the ramifications of such cuts. "A lot of people don't realize the impact on cities, the impact on communities. ... A lot of stories have gone untold. The burdens of many people, the effect upon them, they have borne silently."
When Mr. Steacy began photographing the Inquirer, in 2009, his intent was to focus on "the transition to digital content and all the things that come along with that." He began the project when the Inquirer emerged from bankruptcy, with the staff "fighting back. They were a newsroom doing the absolute best through the absolute worst." It ended in July when the paper moved out of its flagship building.
"I grew up roaming around that newsroom. I photographed as they packed up to where it was literally an empty room."
Thousands of Americans have been laid off, many of an age when further professional employment is unlikely, and here there's no comfort in numbers. "To watch my father going through that was hard. Those feelings and thoughts and experiences exist profoundly in that collage," Mr. Steacy said.
"This year has been devastating to me. Financially. Family-related stuff. Things looked bleak and hopeless, as though it couldn't get worse. The only option seemed to tell my story, my personal story. Whether it's evident or not, it exists within the images of 'The Beast.' "
Asked why the name, Mr. Steacy answered: "I worked on it for 16 to 18 hours a day, non-stop -- I took July 4th off -- from April to the end of August. There's blood, sweat and tears under those sheets of paper. It was physically exhausting, mentally draining. It took a lot out of me. In my mind, this is my heart and soul and my baby.
"I see this as a collaboration on every level. It includes people's reporting, people's stories, various concerns of my own. I wanted as many voices as possible, providing a mirror for people to look into.
"I don't expect any direct change from any one artwork. But it is my intent to ask questions. I do believe that through photography you can expand upon issues, contribute to a conversation. And that conversation can effect change."
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.