Photographer Tom Hocker had a few close brushes with death while working as a public relations staffer in the former Inland Steel Mill in Indiana Harbor in East Chicago.

He came close to falling off ledges, getting struck by flying metal, being incinerated in molten iron and being electrocuted with “thousands of volts.” He wore safety gear from head to toe as he ventured through the intense heat and whirring coil, and donned a breathing mask so he wouldn't inhale carbon monoxide.

"Occasionally, I was in the position where if I stumbled I would have died," he said.

"I worked near flowing hot metal and by ladles or giant buckets with enough steel for 50 cars. A blast furnace is basically a controlled volcano, a silo that's 150 feet high that's lined with heat-resistant fire brick."

The longtime faculty member at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond photographed workers and mill settings while working for Inland’s publicity department from 1975 to 1985. His dramatic, sometimes jaw-dropping black-and-white photos are being displayed in the Steeltown USA exhibit at Purdue Northwest's CHESS Art Gallery at 6725 Kennedy Ave. in Hammond's Hessville neighborhood through the end of the month.

“The gallery show Steeltown USA has really connected Tom's photos to Region steel workers,” Art Gallery Coordinator and PNW Communication Student Sarah Opat said. “I noticed more steel workers coming to the space and telling me about their jobs. It's amazing how art can bring people together."

Student, teacher of photography

After becoming interested in photography as an undergraduate, Hocker studied with legendary abstract expressionist photographer Aaron Siskind when pursuing his master's degree in photography at the IIT Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. His work has focused on abstractions, landscapes and documentaries, especially of "people doing things in an economic context."

"He represents the tradition in photography of documenting the working world that goes back to the days of the Great Depression," said Professor Thomas Roach,  head of the Communications and Creative Arts Department who founded the gallery.

"He's studied with some of the most influential photographers in America. It's a real opportunity for him to be in the photography and arts program at Purdue. We incorporate him as a lecturer, and students are able to appreciate his work at our gallery. He's a real asset to the department and university."

Hocker has photographed a number of subjects over the years, including Central America, immigration and the celebration of quinceañeras in Northwest Indiana and Chicago's South Side, which was the subject of an exhibit a few years ago at the Munster Center for the Visual and Performing Arts. He's traveled the world and shot everything from tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland to Eastern European culture at Orthodox churches in Northwest Indiana. 

He founded the fair trade company, Tree of Life Imports in 1989 during El Salvador's civil war, to support rural artisans there and increase their standard of living. Over the past week, Hocker has been selling handmade crosses and other mostly liturgical crafts at trunk shows in Texas to support traditional producers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, such as Mayan weavers.

Necessity the mother of invention

Hocker took the publicity job at Inland Steel in the 1970s because it meant steady employment. He shot in-house photography that the company provided to newspapers for media coverage and had to follow specific instructions of what to shoot. 

But he carried a camera around all the time, and captured images that interested him as well. 

"There's such an immensity to a steel mill," he said. "Steelworkers were out there with no comfort, whether it was hot or cold or there was debris. But at the same time, it was spectacular visually."

For a decade, Hocker never stopped marveling at the sheer scope and size of the steel mill.

"Aesthetically, it showed the scale of man against machines," he said.

"There were hot metals and great contrast, with the darkened caverns of the building. There were rolling lines a mile long that heat metal white hot and mash it under a giant roller. It ended up as the steel version of a roll of toilet paper that weighs 20 tons. You see steel coil on the back of a flatbed truck, and while it doesn't take up much space it's pushing the 40,000-lb. weight limit."

The industrial backdrops were always fraught with menace, Hocker said.

"Underlying was some sense of threat, with the sheer size and the amount of energy needed," he said.

"Twenty-five and thirty-five years ago, it was a very physically demanding job. It's become automated, but still requires stamina. In the period I was working there, there was more imposition of pollution control devices to make the air more healthy."

And Hocker has always been fascinated with the idea of people making something out of basic raw materials and creating something that has an impact on other's lives, whether Latin American craftsmen or steelworkers.

"I never lost my fascination with the scope, scale, size and energy of the mills," he said. "I always had respect for the people doing their jobs there."

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Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.