This is the Artist Statement for the exhibition "A New Jersey Textile Mill in the 21st Century." While the show took place in 2014, this exhibition signaled an important turning point in my work. When I first went to Jerry Valenta and Sons, I was struck by the fact that there were no employees. Jerry and his son Richie, on most days, were the only people present. The overwhelming presence in the place was the looms that did the specialty weaving. As the statement below suggests, I found the environment a compelling place to photograph. The vast majority of my photographs were of machines and threads and fabrics, and the images were often abstract. At the same time, I was very aware of Jerry and Richie whose skilled interventions made the place run.
After photographing at Valenta and Sons for over a year, I began to look for other skilled, artisan businesses in the Paterson, New Jersey area. In the process, I found a jewelry manufacturer, a pipe organ builder, and a stained glass studio. In each of these small businesses, skilled craftspeople worked with a variety of materials to make objects of great beauty. After a number of years photographing these other artisan businesses, I returned to Jerry Valenta and Sons because I realized that I wanted to record not only the machines but the people working with looms to make possible the many specialty fabrics that Jerry and Richie produce.
From this work photographing the intense relationship between artisans and their materials in a small business setting, I have expanded to looking at visual artists and individual musical instrument builders at work. In this five or six year transition, I believe I have begun to merge my love for the industrial landscape with my love for portrait photography. I am rethinking what I want to photograph and what I am trying to show in the images I create.
Please consider the statement below as the beginning of a major transition in my work:
I grew up on Chicago’s South Side during the 1950s. Early in the morning, I heard the distant rumble from the steel mills along the lakefront. Wandering around the city I saw huge steel structures – bridges, silos, and factories. I never felt far from industry.
As a teenager I worked in an electronics shop at the University of Chicago and, to my family’s chagrin, amassed boxes of WW II surplus electronics equipment. In all this hardware I saw beauty. There was also complexity, mystery, repetition, rust and grease. I wanted to explore and learn how it works.
These same themes have come back to inspire me years later as I explore the American industrial landscape with camera and tripod. Rust and grease are ever-present. The images are often complex with repetitive elements. The images I take are the product of many visits to the same factory. The rhythms and the unexpected details reveal themselves to me as I photograph, review my discoveries, and return to explore further and photograph again.
I hope you are drawn into my journey as you view the photographs.
JERRY VALENTA & SONS –THE TEXTILE MILL
In the spring of 2012 I was introduced to Jerry Valenta, the owner of Jerry Valenta & Sons, a textile mill in Hawthorne, NJ. Jerry’s father, Jerry, Sr., started the business in Paterson right after the Second World War. He had developed a method for knitting, in a single operation, Y-shaped artificial blood vessels on a Jacquard loom. Innovation and adapting to change remain hallmarks in this family-owned business.
Jerry has always been extraordinarily welcoming to me. He offered me free reign to explore and photograph, and he is generous in answering my questions. I am particularly excited that this has become a joint exhibition: along with my photographs, you will have a chance to see part of Jerry’s collection of artistic and specialty textiles. My images explore the process of manufacturing textiles. Jerry’s collection allows viewers to see some of the beautiful and complex fabrics that can be woven on Jacquard looms.
First, the mill is a microcosm of the transformation from industrial to post-industrial production. Everywhere, I observe the hardware and tools needed to support weaving. I hear the loud noises and feel the vibrations of the Jacquard looms. Often, I’ve had to adjust my camera in response to these vibrations. Jerry, on occasion, will stop a loom for a few minutes so I can make a sharper photograph. The newest looms are computer driven; the older ones are controlled using punched cards. The hardware in the mill is a blend of the industrial and the post-industrial.
Second, moving parts wear out. I see machines covered with dust, lint, and fibers that are the remnants of the weaving process. Ever so slowly, the machinery is grinding itself into dust. It is this wearing out, the movement toward entropy, which fascinates me.
The final theme is repetition. Large industrial looms can work with a warp of a thousand or more threads. For each strand of yarn being woven, there is a cord that runs from the loom itself up to the loom head on the second floor (called the “mezzanine”). These hundreds and hundreds of cords make up the loom harness, and they are the vehicle for translating the punched cards or magnetic media into the actual woven patterns in the textiles. The cords themselves within the harness create repeating designs. I wanted to explore the designs in my images, and I began to use lighting to enhance these surprisingly elegant and abstract patterns.
NOT A GUIDEBOOK
This exhibition is not intended as a guidebook to the mill or the weaving process. These photographs are personal responses to a family-owned factory that is adapting to the postindustrial era. They are my attempt to capture entropy and repetition at play.
–– Steve Riskind