Mountain of Steel

Posted on 5 February 2015

In November 1942, Andreas Feininger, one of the superb photographers who documented American lives and American landscapes for the United States Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI), visited Utah on assignment.

Geneva Steel 1

One of Feininger’s locations was the giant steel mill being built on the shores of Utah Lake. The steelworks was named Geneva after the resort that earlier occupied the site. Using emergency wartime financing from the federal government, Columbia Steel and U.S. Steel co-built the lakeside plant. It was one of two steelworks in the American West rushed into construction after the U.S. declared war on Japan. The Utah location had the advantage of being near the junction of two major rail routes (with good access to regional coal and iron), and being well outside the zone of possible enemy air attack. Only in retrospect did it become clear that the two sites chosen for the wartime steel mills—Geneva in Utah and Fontana in California—were terrible in terms of air quality and health quality for local residents. Utah Valley experiences intense winter inversions and the San Bernardino Valley is the catchment for the Los Angeles air basin. Both locales are backed by steep mountain fronts.

Geneva Steel 2Geneva Steel 3

At the Geneva Steel construction site, Feininger could have chosen any number of spectacular sections of the Wasatch Range as backdrops, but, over and over again, using both wide-angle and telephoto lenses, he framed his shots with Mount Timpanogos. Thanks to a local booster project of the 1910s and 1920s, this massif had become the best known, best loved, most climbed, most photographed mountain in Utah.

Even an outsider like Feininger replicated the modern local master view, which turned away from Utah Lake—the great landmark of the region before the twentieth century. From Feininger’s photographs, viewers cannot know that the largest freshwater lake in the Great Basin is a few marshy steps behind. The vision of American strength depicted in these photographs seemingly demanded a firmer backdrop, a steely mountain to match a mountain of steel.

Geneva Steel 4

(For a “biography” of Mount Timpanogos, see my book On Zion’s Mount.)

FSA-OWI image database: Photogrammer.

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