In memory of Braddock: Tony Buba’s portraits of working-class life

by Benjamin Ogrodnik

Mass media images of ruin and the
politics of the “familial gaze”

On November 20, 1980, the Carnegie Museum of Art published a poster for Tony Buba’s omnibus film presentation as part of their ongoing Visiting Filmmaker Series. The poster featured a large, sepia-toned photograph of Sal Carulli, star of Sweet Sal, smiling into the camera. The photograph is enclosed by a picture “frame” made from scrolling text announcing the other titles from Buba series: Sweet Sal; J Roy – New and Used Furniture; Betty’s Corner Café; Washing Walls with Mrs. G; and “other works” to be announced at the event. Sal Carulli’s handwritten note, “Regards from Braddock” adorns the bottom of the picture, in the manner of a signed letter or postcard.

Reimagined as a photographic object, the movie poster resembles the sentimental ornament people might hang in their bedrooms or destined for some other domestic space. As such it invites ritualistic looking: one does not look at the figure once then turn away; rather, we are encouraged to dwell with the figure, looking often. The scrolling text of the other film portraits suggests, finally, an intertextual connection between Sweet Sal and the other works. Sal is the face of the “big long structure,” the network of familial and sentimental looks undergirding Buba’s filmic portraiture. The movie poster, in short, encapsulates Buba’s desire to humanize the milltown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and its inhabitants.

The 1980s saw a “boomlet” of documentaries and mass media images that highlighted the decline of the U.S. industrial working class. Some of the most prominent titles include The Business of America, 1984; The Fighting Ministers, 1986; Skag, an NBC TV show that aired in 1980; and Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, 1986.

Buba’s concept of the film portrait — a loving image of a person developed over multiple films, across multiple years — was born at a time when de-industrialization ravaged Western Pennsylvania. In the popular visual culture, a battle of ideas and images was waged over the identity of cities like Pittsburgh.[1] A “boomlet” of popular documentary films, like the Business of America (1984) and The Fighting Ministers (1986), and nationally broadcast TV shows, like Skag (1980), suggested that industrial United States as a whole was irreversibly changing and its working class people were out of step with an increasingly globalized economy. The steel mill, once wedded powerfully to the identity of cities like Youngstown or Pittsburgh, was shown on the nightly news disintegrating in a fiery explosion and disappearing into a cloud of darkened smoke.

Buba’s portraits of working class life were forged out of his wish to challenge historical forgetting and to enrich representations of industrial decline. A director of 36 films since 1972 and a Guggenheim Grant recipient in 1985, his film/video works span genres and modes as disparate as social documentaries, music videos, an interactive website, sponsored educational films, and fiction films. He has received most attention for a handful of documentaries and videos he made in the 1980s and 1990s that address the history and decline of the steel working industry in Western Pennsylvania. In particular, his 1996 Struggles in Steel examines the African American community’s fight to gain employment in steel working and industrial sectors. Throughout his career, Buba has contributed to the creation of a “storehouse of memory,” in Dolores Hayden’s words, for working-class communities that are still grappling with the closure of mills, mines, and factories.[2]

Analyzing several notable film portraits from the Braddock Chronicles, I assert that Buba pursued a somewhat counterintuitive path to challenge and redefine the mediascape of deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s. He made a wide variety of home movies that documented the changing conditions of his hometown, and he tracked the reverberations of economic disaster through the perspective of the ordinary person. Though Buba is conventionally linked with more well-known documentarians, such as Michael Moore, and scholars have previously argued that his visual style and rhetorical position as a filmmaker often bears a resemblance to postmodern aesthetics of so-called “New Documentary” in the 1970s and 1980s[3], I want to push away from these accounts and instead consider the centrality of family in his films. More than fashionable postmodern irony, his emphasis on family and familial relationships makes Buba unique as a socially conscious, Leftist documentarian. As I will show, family and family relationships arise throughout his work both as a recurring visual subject — his films center on family and familial dynamics — and as a mode of address to his audience. Through humor, intimacy and sentimentality, he tries to position his own audience as if they were extended family, rather than as detached, anonymous observers learning about an abstract topic.

My analysis focuses on the familial gaze he constructs in three of his films: To My Family (1972), Sweet Sal (1979), and Voices From a Steeltown (1983). My use of the phrase “familial gaze” comes from Marianne Hirsch’s innovative research on the representation of family, memory, and history in postwar visual culture. Hirsch argues that the familial gaze refers to an “imaginary cohesion,” a desire for wholeness and a wish for belonging that arises in visual depictions of groups of people defined as a family. She considers examples ranging from the 1955 photo exhibition Family of Man, to the Holocaust graphic-novel memoirs of Art Spiegelman, to the parodic self-portraits of North American visual artist Cindy Sherman. Hirsch reminds us that family is socially constructed and historically specific. The parameters of who counts as “family” is shaped by factors (ideology, nationality, religious status, and geography, to name a few) that are not always obvious to ordinary people creating narratives about themselves.

Reproducible technologies, such as photography and film, are especially powerful tools in regards to how we imagine ourselves and others. Given their presumed status of being a simple transcription of real life, film and photography tend to manufacture idealized images of family as though they were definitive, honest, and transparent. Tensions between siblings, parents and children, or extended families can be masked in a single stroke: saying Cheese! and smiling for the camera. In conventionalized form such as the simple photo album, the familial image can repress the existential and relational complexity of the album’s depicted individuals. Conventional images can distort the messy and diverse nature of lived reality, reducing lives into stereotypical (and normative) constructions of happiness and static harmony. At their worst, conventional images tend to universalize one hegemonic kind of familial organization — most often the heterosexual, patriarchal, nuclear family unit — at the expense of other ways of being, relating and remembering.[4] Many scholars (including Hirsch herself) are therefore rightly skeptical toward the conservative and ideological implications underlying images of family in contemporary media.

The Family Of Man exhibition at the MoMA, 1955, suggested a problematic uniformity of human experience. Juxtaposing individuals of diverse cultural backgrounds in the same space, it imagines a false sense of social harmony and equality.

Yet it is also important to recognize that not all images of family, or “familiality” (to borrow another of Hirsch’s terms), are by their nature ideologically conservative. Nor is it the case that the visual depiction of family is innately hostile to historical consciousness, that the family must always be a form of forgetting or pernicious wish fulfillment. One need only look at the proliferation of recent artwork that challenges the State-imposed status of “social death” around the undocumented migrant. In order to contest the xenophobic ideology that frames immigrants as a seething, dangerous mass that threatens the bounded nation-state, documentarians have relied heavily upon family narratives, personal testimony, and visual remembrances to restore to these individuals a sense of cohesive identity and memory that would otherwise be at risk.[5]

At its most radical, familial representation, with its empathetic regard for the Other and its backward-looking glance towards the past, can redefine the boundaries of what is considered a proper citizen or even a proper human. And despite (or perhaps because of) the ongoing social and technological redefinition of what it means to be a family or a community, the desire to comprehend one’s place in the world and to form intimate, familial or quasi-familial connections with others seems to be only growing stronger. This desire is manifested all around us in the current era of selfies, social media photography, digital portraiture and Snapchat ephemeral storytelling. As long as we feel a strong need to belong, feel loved, be seen and recognized by others on a personal level, familial images are here to stay.

Accordingly, my main claim in this essay is that Buba’s filmmaking deploys aesthetics of familiality for progressive ends. Rather than try to conceal processes of history-making or the reality of cultural difference, Buba develops an aesthetic around familiality in order to visualize dynamics of forgetting and remembrance, and to apprehend marginal groups that populated his industrial hometown. These groups were largely invisible in the public discourse. As Buba and his colleagues often complained, there was a dearth of “indigenous” perspectives on deindustrialization that reflected the views of people most affected by it.[6] He sought to change that by recasting deindustrialization through images of family, with a focus on the plight of ethnic immigrant groups. This did not result in a monolithic image of sameness but instead unleashed representing the diversity of how economic change was being internalized and experienced by people living in the same town. This critical recuperation of familial portraiture pushed against a tendency in mass media and so-called “New Documentary” films to objectify the newly unemployed working classes as oddities, objects of pity, or victims of global capitalism.

To refine how I analyze Buba’s use of a familial gaze, I cite his interest in real and imagined family relationships; his frequent entwinement of space and memory, or what Guiliana Bruno calls “geopsychic” space, as a motif running in his film portraits[7]; and his use of recurring characters across multiple films, which signals an awareness of historical discontinuity and change. These techniques not only challenge documentary protocols of the era, they more importantly add a sense of permanence and recovery to his portraits of Braddock in decline.

Geopsychic space, in Bruno’s usage, refers to the intersection of cartography, imagination, remembrance, and shared identity in a physical site. Emotionally charged spaces and places such as churches, street corners, cemeteries, homes, backyards, libraries, schools and stadiums all function as powerful storehouses of memory. Captured on film, these spaces can transform into hubs for visualizing, collecting, and comprehending images of family against the capitalist march of “progress.” In these films, Buba shows people both remembering spaces and remembering in and around certain physical sites that mattered to them (whether those spaces are still intact or not), restoring a sense of familial belonging across space and time. Buba’s film career performs a kind of “geopsychic site-seeing” on his hometown of Braddock, generating a complex relation to time distinct from the simplified temporalities suggested by images of deindustrial ruin circulating at the time.

“A steel town’s chronicler and conscience”:
on Buba’s film portraits

Buba’s earliest films, dubbed “The Braddock Chronicles,” took the form of short, 5-20 minute film portraits, which he shot on 16mm and Super 8mm cameras while still a graduate student of film at Ohio University[8]. The films that comprise this body of work include: To My Family (1972, 3 minutes); J. Roy – New and Used Furniture (1974, 10 minutes); Shutdown (1975, 12 minutes); Betty’s Corner Café (1976, 11 minutes); Sweet Sal (1979, 25 minutes); Home Movies (1980, 3 minutes); Homage to a Mill Town (1980, 2 minutes); Washing Walls with Mrs. G (1980, 6 minutes); Mill Hunk Herald (1981, 13 minutes); Peabody and Friends (1983, 7 minutes); Voices from a Steel Town (1983, 28 minutes); Braddock Food Bank (1985, 4.5 minutes); and Birthday Party (1985, 5.5 minutes).

Buba’s film portraits, such as J. Roy—New and Used Furniture, 1974, depict Braddock personalities and local landmarks. Salesman J. Roy, right, has a bottomless optimism, despite the fact that business has fallen on hard times.

The film portraits focus on friends and acquaintances living in Buba’s hometown of Braddock. Lasting only several minutes, they pack emotional punch without overstaying their welcome. As described by one local critic,

“For Tony Buba’s [portrait] films, a more character-oriented style is added to vérité [style filmmaking], and his own portrait-type documentary emerges…Tony’s camera records the sincerity, jive talk, and the random philosophy of his subjects in a cross-section of his hometown; we’re permitted a keyhole view of unrehearsed human drama that turns with pathos and hilarity.”[9]

These films feature little to no didactic framing material (i.e., talking head interviews, title cards, etc.). All but one or two portraits employ a stark, black-and-white palette. Though budget rather than aesthetics was probably the main factor here, these monochromatic images carry, retrospectively, an unexpected resonance with the urgency and immediacy of agitprop newsreel films. The short film is often associated with other amateur visual forms, such as the home movie, photographic portraits and family albums. These visual forms, as Marianne Hirsch argues, are organized by a “familial gaze.” As Hirsch writes,

“When we look at one another within what we think of as our families, we are also the objects of an external gaze…the powerful gaze of familiality which imposes and perpetuates certain conventional images of the familial and which ‘frames’ the family in both senses of the term.”[10]

Hirsch argues that forms of portraiture also are problematic forms of stability. However, in Buba’s films, the attributes of stability, conventionality, and familiarity exist in opposition to the temporal decay, discontinuity, rupture, and isolation perpetuated by deindustrialization.

In Mill Hunk Herald, 1981, Buba blends vérité interviews of worker organizers with an accordion-led musical performance of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Braddock High School marching band. The steel mills are either gone, or in the process of disappearing. Mill Hunk Herald.

Buba created several film portraits as “sponsored” films to support the workers’ struggles in Braddock. In Mill Hunk Herald, 1981, Buba blends vérité interviews of worker organizers with an accordion-led musical performance of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Braddock High School marching band. Another sponsored film, Braddock Food Bank, 1985, is a silent piece that asks, via intertitles, whether it is better to make a movie about the poor or give them money directly.

The impression of familiality, familiarity and intimacy works like a filter or veil over which Buba makes sense of his Braddock surroundings. As Carnegie Museum of Art film curator Bill Judson explains, “Critics find it essential to consider Buba as a person when writing about his films, because they recognize shared constellations of identity in the man, the town, and the films.”[11] Washing Walls with Mrs. G is shot exclusively inside the kitchen of his grandmother. Static long shots show his grandmother speaking about her migration to Braddock decades ago, in a heavy Italian accent (semi-translated with Buba’s own subtitles). Meanwhile Buba, shown partially out of the frame, scrubs and cleans the walls.[12] As Buba has said, succinctly, of the film: “The title describes the film.” A sense of familiality emerges in the fact that his depicted subject (his grandmother) is presented not as a stranger but a close and knowable person.

Buba wished to have the viewer occupy and feel time itself through his films “with a sense of loss.”[13] Thus, he revisited and re-filmed the same individuals after many years, in order to catch up with them and to show how they’d changed along with him. Through the repeated exposure to the same individuals across different films, we see individuals “age” until the point of their death. Several individuals in particular tend to reappear – Sal Carulli, J. Roy, Margie Strosser, LeRoi, several salesmen, and unnamed by-standers. Seeing these reappearing characters produces a sense of déjà vu for viewers, a curiosity about how they live when they are not filmed, and a sense of loss as they aged, especially as some of the older characters died soon after Buba completed his filming.[14]

Peabody & Friends, 1983, is based on a Braddock resident who, years ago, fell several stories from his apartment and lost his wife and children during recovery. The man cannot remember the details of his accident. Peabody & Friends.

Buba, finally, sought to create a web of connectivity across the portrait films. He accomplished this by screening them in an omnibus format, showing six or seven film portraits in a single event. While Buba believed that each film could be enjoyed individually, he has said in interviews that they were meant to be comprehended as part of what he called “a big long structure.”[15] The omnibus presentation format (placing the films in a series) lends a peculiar sort of connective tissue to them. Much like the Sweet Sal movie poster, which weaves the narratives of disparate Braddock citizens through the figure of Sal, the omnibus presentation format juxtaposes different individuals of varying class, gender and racial positions. This juxtaposition enables a “familial” form of looking: it establishes connections as well as differences between film subjects, and fosters “a series of ‘looks’ that both create and consolidate the familial relations among the individuals involved, fostering an unmistakable sense of mutual recognition.”[16]

The same individual often appears in different films. Sal Carulli appears in Sweet Sal, 1979, and Lightening Over Braddock, 1988.
The youthful salesman in J. Roy, who in that early film was dressed in dapper formal wear, selling the viewer a piece of china with good cheer, is later shown in Voices from a Steeltown trying to explain the town’s now-undeniable ruin; he clearly is no longer in the business of selling the American Dream.


But just as much as the serial nature of the films’ presentation suggests presence and familial continuity, it suggests loss as well. The absence and gradual disappearance of certain characters, temporal gaps in between each film’s production, and visible changes in Braddock’s health as a town are constant reminders of a brutal fact: that time persists. The omnibus format, far from perpetuating an illusion of plentitude and wholeness, brings forth the painful reality of discontinuity. As Braddock’s economic prospects fade and worsen, so too the subjects of the film portraits appear more pensive and reflective about their lives as they re-appear across Buba’s films.

Film analysis: To My Family (1972, 3 min)

The first film of the Braddock Chronicles demonstrates most clearly Buba’s statement on documentary film: it is a process involving the production of memory-images that alternately shock and console us into recollecting a lost past. Produced at Ohio University in 1972-1973, To My Family is a three-minute, black-and-white film, depicting Buba’s grandfather’s Braddock shoe-repair shop prior to its demolition.

The view from Buba’s second-story kitchen window, from To My Family, 1972. The shoe repair store. To My Family.

The film opens with a long shot depicting his mother’s kitchen, eerily empty, with natural light shining through a far window. Next, in a point-of-view shot we look over an unkempt backyard, with a common, first-generation Catholic immigrant lawn statue commemorating the Virgin Mary. As the camera pans slowly across the yard, revealing nothing but empty lawn, the audio track plays a voice-over conversation between Tony and a woman, presumably his mother, in which they discuss the impending demolition of his grandfather’s store.

In the second segment, the family’s off-screen conversation triggers an abrupt transition that transports us away from the Braddock home, in a kind of mental flashback, to Buba’s grandfather’s shoe repair store. From here, a montage sequence follows: a snapshot of the exterior of the storefront; a store sign, with Coca-Cola advertisement, naively inviting affordable and “expert” shoe-shine sessions; a photographic image of Buba’s grandfather; and a poster of a proverbial shoe maker. The shoemaker is a white, elderly, bespectacled, but muscular man, proudly hammering into finished form a simple shoe, against a sign that reads, “Get Longer Wear by Shoe Repair.”

Inside, we see the once-proud shoe store vacated of all human presence: half-empty shelves, torn strips of wallpaper hanging haphazardly in all directions, a workbench overstuffed with tools, boxes, and untold devices of industry. Heavy shadows give an impression of desertion, desolation: we are in a ruined site. Buba’s camera lingers curiously over work tools, including a sewing machine and shoe-shine chair. Some of these objects trigger nondiegetic sounds of production (hammering) on the soundtrack, as if haunted by ghosts. The sewing machine casts a frightening shadow against the wall, and the chair’s shining platform protrudes into space like a spire or prehistoric megalith. In other instances, the camera is positioned so close to the object that the only discernible visual is a tangle of chords and metallic fingers, suggesting the fossil of a long-dead creature, something no longer of this world.

Abandoned tools of the trade. Buba records images of a sewing machine and shoe-shine chair in quasi-photographic fashion. Without any perceptible movement by the camera, a disquieting stillness attaches to the space of the store. To My Family.

In the third and last segment, the repair-store flashback abruptly terminates. We return to the familiar shot of a second-story window, looking below onto the backyard. We hear, off-screen, Mother: “Hey Butch, your coffee’s getting cold…” The film then cuts to a pair of white intertitles: “to my family / Produced at Ohio U., 1972-73.”

As a historical record, the film is not about the shoe making industry or his grandfather, but rather is about the filmmaker’s exploring his own increasing distance from these things. The film manifests his fear that an attenuated connection to family history will one day be completely severed. A metaphorical passage from adulthood to childhood occurs in the film’s middle section. The viewer is aligned with adult Buba in the home, at the film’s start, signaled by the high-angle shot which looks out onto the yard. Conversely, during the flashback to the shoe store, numerous low-angle, close-up shots of machines and tools place us in a fantasmatic position of Buba-as-child. In this child-like position, the world’s objects loom large before us, overwhelming both the frame and our possibility of comprehension, not unlike how the adult world may appear unknowable, and threatening, to the young.

In this child-like position, the “found” objects in the repair shop are characterized by lingering, spectral traces of the shoe-worker’s labor. The ghostly sounds of industry, ambiguous and opaque, give a sharp edge to Buba’s exercise in memory-making: a viewer’s awareness and consideration of the tools does not bridge the temporal distance that these objects represent. Indeed, Buba aestheticizes that distance as a major cinematic strategy. For example, the sounds are fragmentary, incomplete, eerie; as such, they can only materialize his alienation from a previous generation.

And yet, Buba’s careful attention to a “wasted space” before its demolition shows how powerful and generative his approach to the past can be. He adopts a reverent and exploratory attitude to spatial ruin. The shoe-repair-store-as-ruin is not forgotten, but is simultaneously enriched and haunted by traces of the past. As demonstrated in the film, these past traces have a special agency all their own which exceeds textbook historical treatment. That is, the false copy of the store-in-memory (and its falsified sounds of hammering, shining, and shoe-repair production) nevertheless brings a reorientation of oneself to the past. A revivifying sensation is registered and affirmed through the viewer’s body, aligned with Buba-as-child: “something cross-temporal, something affective, and something affirmative circulates. Something is touched.”[17] Even if the memory-image of the empty store is not the same as the store itself, it is “not not the thing”, to borrow a formulation by Rebecca Schneider, in her writing on the paradoxical productivity of the double negative of historical reenactment.[18]

The store’s disappearance, then, becomes a timely occasion for Buba’s familial recovery and for the artistic creation of an investigative/forensic relationship to the past. Buba thus embarks on a model of documentary filmmaking heavily layered with a sense of “geopsychic” space — Giuliana Bruno’s term for a folding together of memory and real concrete space, “a place where social geography and psychic paths are written together in a phantasmatic construction of the present.”[19] This theme of real and imagined space and time folding together, in To My Family, becomes explicit through the stylistic contrast of nondiegetic sound and visual stillness. Later in subsequent portraits the pursuit of geopsychic space becomes the occasion for breakdowns in style and blurring of formal categories.