Against the Grain

The following is the introduction to the exhibition of this work at the Light Factory, Charlotte, North Carolina.

The idea of immortalizing someone or something in a photograph has been around since the origins of photography. At it’s best the photograph is not just an accurate rendering of a person, place or event, but a container to hold all three with a point of view and perhaps the energy of the subject or happening. Mark Maio has encapsulated an entire social segment of our American history by showing up with his camera, and letting the story speak. In 1989 Maio began documenting the remnants of the US grain industry during his sociological studies of ethnic neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York. From 1825 on, the grain transshipping industry in Buffalo was a primary employer of the Irish immigrants who hand dug the Erie Canal across the state. Settling along the terminus of the canal in a neighborhood now called the Old First Ward, these Irish immigrants and their descendants “scooped” the grain that came across the Great Lakes from the heartland on boats and sent it to feed the world via the Erie Canal. These “grain scoopers” invited Maio to their union meetings, their homes, and their lives. The photographs on view here are the visual result of that invitation. 

The sixteen-year project started in Buffalo, New York and took the photographer through Kansas, across the Great Lakes, and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Unlike the well known documentary photographers of the 1930’s like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lang, Maio was not on assignment for another organization like the FSA (Farm Security Administration), and did not set out to support socialist ideals. Maio showed up with his camera and one lens, and allowed the story to find him. In his photographs a viewer can see the artist’s love of character and the thick visual details of personal histories. Maio’s uncanny ability to capture the individual is not his only strength; his work revels in the excitement of people using muscle, skill, and a tribal sense of community to triumph in a day’s work. In viewing these photographs one can see the grain scoopers are as comfortable and confident in the use of their magnificent machinery as they are with Maio and his camera.

The hold of a large boat is the container used to transport the grain and becomes a significant site for many of Maio’s photographs. As a photographer he stands close to the action, amidst the 375,000 bushels of grain and the skillful manipulation by the grain scoopers. The filling of the hold becomes an event to remember. The grain scoopers maneuver a very large shovel with ropes in a hoist-like process that revolutionized the industry by significantly increasing the amount of grain that could be unloaded from a boat in a short time. As the machinery became more sophisticated and the need for manpower decreased in other grain ports across the country, the grain scoopers union made concessions that kept them using the same technology in 1989 that was introduced in 1845. In 1900, there were 3000 men employed as grain scoopers in Buffalo. When this project began in 1989, there 80 men still working as scoopers. In 2005, when Maio documented the last grain boat unloaded by these men, there were only 40 left. 

Maio’s work not only demonstrates an astute aesthetic, his documentation also gives the viewer a striking portrait of the grain industry. Carbon pigment inkjet prints become the vehicle for Maio to explore the vanishing world of the “grain scoopers”. The journey of the grain, the magnificent structures of the industry and the story of the people are all part of what Maio likes to call “visual sociology”. If the story itself doesn’t grab you with the triumphant drama of these men and their vibrant history, Maio’s aesthetic abilities that lean towards formalism and abstraction will. Through Maio’s eyes we see a keen sense of available light and composition that are so bold, they mimic the muscle and organization of the industry. Maio’s photographs serve as a valuable time capsule for this very American story, and his artistry begs the viewer to look more than twice.