Men of Steel in a Grey Landscape
Text and photographs by Fidel Raso
Bilbao was a black and white city. More specifically, it was grey. That is the impression it left on color film. Once in a while, the color of rusted steel or the undecipherable color of the Nervión River would make an appearance.
Grey was also the favorite color of the citizens of Bilbao when talking about the weather: “It seems we are going to have a grey day” was often said as a routine novelty in houses, bars, and streets. Steel factories, black umbrellas, grey sidewalks, and clothes of similar colors defined the urban landscape associated with the industrial revolution of the twentieth century.
It could be said that the only people dressed with colorful clothes were the football players from the teams located around the industrial areas. Green and black for the team of Sestao, yellow and black for the players of Barakaldo, and the sacred colors red and white for the Athletic de Bilbao. Its fans turned “¡Alirón!” into their football chant, a phonetic interpretation that originated in strip mining when a good seam of steel was found: “¡All iron!” screamed the miners full of happiness.
Bilbao extended its vast steel industry and shipyards for almost 20 kilometers along the left bank of the Nervión River until reaching the sea. The landscape was defined by the steaming chimneys and the sirens that, like howls, marked the beginning and end of the workday in each factory. You would also see coal, tons of coal all around, along with fire and molten steel. By the docks along the river you would gaze upon gigantic ships and cranes that challenged the wind, rain, and even the laws of gravity and balance with their massive pieces of steel. Always the steel.
People who lived in the area referred to each factory by a colloquial name: “Altosornos” (Altos Hornos de Vizcaya), “Lanaval” (Astilleros Españoles SA), “Laaurrerá” (Aurrerá),” and “Labalco” (Babcok Wilcox). Bars and restaurants near the factories had a specialty of the house: “el Alubiero,” for example, was the place to eat the only dish served made of beans, chorizo, and bacon. And you would eat with your factory clothes on.
Parents showed proudly to their children the factories where they worked, and many of those children went on to apprentice schools in order to learn the trade and subsequently start working in the same factory where their parents once worked.
But that world of whites, greys, and blacks was doomed to die. They said that it was no longer economically feasible to produce steel. And the flame that used to light the night sky red slowly faded. Workers disappeared and that burning land vanished with them, even with controlled explosions of Goma-2 explosives.
It gave way to a world of color, and the steel turned into sheets of titanium designed with Cad-Cam, one of the most advanced software programs at the time. The Guggenheim was born in the heart of Bilbao while, just a few kilometers away, coincidentally towards the sunset, the last remains of steel disappeared.
Personally, I was saddened and even shed a tear as I saw every trace of this past disappearing. A past that was built by magnificent architects and engineers, mostly wise men who designed using wood rulers, India ink, and pencil, a past of large structures of reinforced concrete and mechanisms that were used to produce high-quality steel.
The photographs, my photographs, were not easy to take, and want to be an homage to all those professionals who worked where people identified the places by the name of the factories.
Fidel Raso received his degree in journalism from the University of the Basque Country. A special correspondent to many international events, he witnessed firsthand the First Gulf War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He is the author of two books exploring the deindustrialization of Bilbao, Semillas de hierro and Margen Izquierda, and was awarded second prize in the 2014 Spanish National Photojournalism Award for his photograph “Desesperación y huida.” In 2016, he was awarded the prestigious Premio Internacional de Periodismo Cátedra Manu Leguineche.