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Gellert tells Iron Range story through images

For generations, mining has been a way of life on the Range. Chris Trboyevich is pictured in Coleraine, Minn. (photo by Vance Gellert)

Vance Gellert calls himself a photographer and researcher, but anyone who spends time with one of his exhibits quickly realizes that a third term is equally appropriate: Storyteller.

Gellert lets his images of the people and places he researches tell their stories. Only a handful of words are attached — words that may add a "who" or a "where" to complete the tale.

The St. Paul photographer is bringing his latest body of work, titled "Iron Country," to the Anderson Center, where it will be exhibited Jan. 20 through March 31.

The public is invited to meet Gellert at an opening reception and artist talk at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, in the main gallery at Tower View.

It will be his second show at Tower View. Gellert, who was among resident artists for a month there in 2010, brought his collection of images from the I35W bridge collapse to the Anderson Center in 2013. That exhibit focused on first responders and survivors.

A visit to Minnesota's Iron Range for another project inspired the new exhibit. He returned there in 2011 and began to research, photograph and talk to the people of "Iron Country."

The result is a collection of images ranging from technology, landscapes and structures to personalities and the area's culture, according to the Anderson Center.

That's the way he works, Gellert explained. "I don't search for individual images" like most photographers. Rather, he develops a project that is cohesive and, to him, energizing. "It keeps me looking for images," he said.

Gellert will bring about 60 images to Red Wing in order to tell the story in a sequence that begins with the native perspective, before the white man came to mine the earth. The Ojibwe people named it "Mesabi," which means "sleeping giant."

An aerial view shows the scope of U.S. Steel’s MinnTac Mine in Mountain Iron, Minn. (photo by Vance Gellert)

The evolution of the mining industry on the Range can be seen in his photos of the visual landscape. Gellert was struck by "mining pits filled with blue water and a rainbow of colors" on the pit walls — especially vermillion; and by "200-foot mounds of low grade hematite marching across Northern Minnesota."

The research phase led him to talk with people in the communities, from Coleraine and Eveleth to Hibbing, Virginia and beyond, asking, "What's going on here?"

In the Twin Cities, Gellert explained, most people think of the Iron Range industry as part of past history. In reality, he said, "It's still there," though mining is different today.

The exhibit's third section depicts businesses and services, including the large machinery companies and the fact that many places started out as towns but ended up as holes in the ground because the companies moved entire communities so they could mine those sites.

One of the results, Gellert said, was that the mining companies built some wonderful town halls, schools and other facilities.

Cultural heritage

The cultural heritage of the region reflects the fact that immigrant people from 43 countries came to work in the mines — many more nations than most people think settled the Range, he noted. Even today, he believes "mining is in the blood" of many residents.

Culture was highly valued by the mining companies as well as by the immigrant settlers, Gellert said. "There is evidence of it yet," he noted, citing the annual Northern Lights Music Festival, a three-week classical music performance program and music school held each summer on the Iron Range.

Organized by Aurora native and pianist Veda Zuponcic, it also serves to showcase the architectural gems found in the several communities where events are held.

He was impressed, Gellert admitted. "I learn so much when I dig around with a camera."

The exhibit also examines mining today, including new techniques and processes, the economic impact, controversies surrounding the industry today, and the reclamation of former sites.

"I'm just reporting," Gellert commented. "It's a story that's not known around the state much," despite the critical role played by the Range in building the country and winning two world wars.

A companion book with additional photographs will be available at the opening. Gellert said he will take people on a "walk-through" of the exhibit as part of his artist talk.

"It's about the pictures. It ain't about me," he said.

People can stop and view the exhibit weekdays through March; there is no charge. For more information go online to www.andersoncenter.org or call 651-388-2009.

If you go ...

Who: Photographer Vance Gellert

What: Opening reception for "Iron Country"

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20

Where: Anderson Center

How much: Free

More info: 651-388-2900 or www.andersoncenter.org

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