Industrial strength displayed

March 1, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photography exhibit opening this week at the Muskegon Museum of Art is worth volumes to any who doubt that industry is still strong in West Michigan.

"Industrial Arts: West Michigan" opens Thursday and features 19 photos shot in the last several weeks by some of the best fine art photographers in West Michigan. The new images have been added to an existing collection of industrial photos shot in the late 1940s and published in 1947 by the Greater Muskegon Chamber of Commerce in a book entitled "Muskegon Means Home to Me."

Area companies that agreed to collaborate with the art museum on the new exhibition and allow the photographers on their plant floors include Eagle Alloy Inc., Harbor Steel and Supply Corp., Herman Miller, Howmet Castings/Alcoa, Johnston Boiler Co., JSJ Corp., L-3 Communications, Louis Padnos Iron & Metal Co., Northern Machine Tool Co. and Shape Corp.

Photographers commissioned to capture visual impressions of the people and machinery at work in industry are Bill Chardon, Marc Hoeksema, Steven Huyser-Honig, Neil Mullally, Frederic Reinecke, Kendra Stanley-Mills, Kim Vanden Berg, Victoria Veenstra and John Walson.

"Industrial Arts: West Michigan" is underwritten by L-3 Communications, which employs about 600 at its Combat Propulsion Systems in Muskegon. That plant was the main facility of Continental Motors for generations.

Two of the photographs in the exhibit were shot by Mullally at Harbor Steel in Muskegon. Mullally is a long-time award-winning photographer but he only does it as a hobby: He has earned his paycheck for the last 22 years as a judge in the Muskegon County Probate and Family Court. Mullally won his first photography award while a student at the University of Michigan Law School, and more recently he won an award from the Holland Arts Council.

One of Mullally's photos in the exhibit is in black-and-white and shows Harbor Steel employees Nick Wiseman and Shattuck Braafhart in front of 30-foot-high stacks of steel and other metals, ready for delivery to industrial customers.

Taking photographs in an industrial setting was new for Mullally. Although he has known Harbor Steel CEO David Folkert for many years, Mullally said he had "not thought about the importance of steel.” But after he was assigned to shoot at Harbor Steel and he spoke to Folkert about it, he said he realized that steel "is a basic essential to everything that happens in industry. So I wanted to show the power of steel, the importance of steel."

The Harbor Steel facility is immense, perhaps "bigger than a football field," in Mullally's estimation. As he watched the people at work there, he realized he also had to show the human element that is so essential in industry. When he saw employee Don Bayle welding steel, bathed in brilliant blue light, "I instantly knew this would be a really good shot." He then "posterized" the image to give it the appearance of a poster graphic.

Despite the economic downturn, Harbor Steel & Supply really is a vibrant business.

Folkert said it is commonly said in the steel industry that it is the last to feel the effects of a recession, and the first to come out of it. But in the case of Harbor Steel, Folkert said 2008 was actually "a record-breaking year in sales and earnings," and even now, "quoting (for new orders) is actually extremely strong."

Folkert said he believes Harbor Steel's level of business activity now reflects "a lot of pent-up demand" from industry for steel and other types of metals.

Although he has heard predictions that the recession will continue through the end of 2009, "I tend to be more optimistic than that," he said.

Harbor Steel, a family-owned business, was incorporated in 1952, with 2008 sales in excess of $70 million, according to Folkert. It has about 50 employees in Muskegon and another 150 or so at two other major locations: one in Kentucky and one in West Virginia. In Michigan, the company serves much of the western side of the Lower Peninsula, from the lakeshore to Grand Rapids and south to South Haven. It has more than 2,000 active accounts, about a third of them located in Michigan.

The industrial photography exhibition, which runs through May 31, was inspired by the West Shore Symphony Orchestra concerts scheduled for later this month. The concerts, "American Made: the Art of Manufacturing," will be held at the Frauenthal Center for Performing Arts in downtown Muskegon.

Several of the WSSO musicians will also perform at the museum for the opening of "Industrial Arts: West Michigan." The performance begins at 5:30 p.m. and is open to the public with free admission.

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