Lebanon native’s photo of SCI Cresson wins first place at Art of the State 2023

Lebanon County native Michael Hower was awarded the first prize in photography/digital media of Art of the State 2023 for an almost three-foot print of Transparency. He took the award-winning photograph at SCI Cresson, an abandoned prison in western Pennsylvania.

Art of the State 2023 will display 86 art pieces, ranging from photography/digital media to work on paper, painting, sculpture, and craft, produced by 86 artists from across the state until Jan. 7, at the State Museum of Pennsylvania. This is Hower’s second year exhibiting and first year winning.

“The Art of the State Pennsylvania is a very exclusive juried art show. You have about a 2 percent chance of getting into it roughly. There were over 1,800 entries this year,” Hower said. “It’s a show that I covet.”

A Cumberland County resident, 44-year-old Hower is the son of Jonestown residents, a Northern Lebanon alumnus of 1997, a Cornwall Manor employee of 26 years, and the father of an 8- and 14-year-old. He has practiced photography for the past 12 years since his oldest son was 2.

“I went to art school, and I studied painting and drawing,” Hower said of his background. “And I actually never took the photography course because at that time … it was still all film. And I had little interest in spending time in the dark room and learning that whole process. It seemed completely foreign to me.”

Hower experienced burnout with these art mediums during college and stopped until he started making collages as a new father.

“I started seeking out things to photograph to use in the collages,” Hower said. “And the immediacy of … digital photography worked well because I could just go out, take a picture, put the memory card in the computer, download it, work on it, print it out, and use it. So over time, that wasn’t even over a lot of time, I started to recognize that the pictures were better than the collages.”

This realization led Hower to upgrade from using a point-and-shoot and, in an effort to learn how to use his new camera, read a book about it from cover to cover “about seven times.”

When asked how his background in art contributed to his growth as a photographer, Hower said, “There are some of the basic principles of design and composition and color, that sort of stuff came over. But there was also the learning of a brand-new medium, and it being exciting. And it didn’t have the ‘baggage’ that came with the other stuff.”

“So, I had that sort of design sensibility that I was a good foundation to learn the photography from. And through the years, too, it’s something I’ve noticed, and something I’ve been told by other people and critics is that my photos have a very painterly quality to them.”

Regarding his sources of creative inspiration, Hower said, “I have photographer friends, but I don’t spend a lot of time looking at works of famous photographers. I’m more apt to still look at works of artists that do painting or installation pieces, cultural pieces, stuff of that nature. I still go back to the more art side of it.”

Michael Hower at a photography exhibit. (Provided by Michael Hower)

Hower started his photography career seeking “old garages” and “canal locks,” spaces of graffiti and abandonment, to photograph.

“I often say to people, ‘My subject matter is that of urban exploration. But I am not an urban explorer,’” Hower said. “I seek out places that I know where there’ll be opportunities and where I’ll have permission.”

In addition to being the type of person who doesn’t “operate well in the thrill of the moment,” Hower said being a father requires him to research locations before visiting them because his time out in the field is limited.

Hower grew up with parts of the Union Canal in his backyard and visited canal lock sites as his father wrote articles about the canal for the Lebanon Daily News. His father still had some original documents, and Hower used them as fuel for his research. “From there, it just snowballed into doing more research and finding bigger and better and more exciting places.”

“It was the discovery of the old Michter’s Distillery in southeastern Lebanon County,” Hower said of how his fascination with abandoned spaces began. “Most of it’s largely gone now. They saved a warehouse and one of the original buildings. But it was sort of an ‘aha’ moment. Like I had grown up in Lebanon County … but here is this place that I had never seen. I had never heard of.”

Hower said places of industry often tell stories with multiple layers that connect to the history of a municipality, a state, or a country.

“I’m not interested in a neat-looking abandoned house along the side of the road,” Hower said of what he does, and doesn’t, look for when shooting pictures. “If there’s no story to me, the visual interest, it goes by the wayside.”

“For example, there’s a ghost town I like to photograph called Concrete City outside Wilkes-Barre,” Hower said. “It was a miner’s village. But it was a cutting-edge design for the 1910s that they built the buildings out of all poured concrete.”

Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Co. owned the coal company and the railroad company that transported the anthracite. Following a Supreme Court case and the breaking up of the monopoly, the Glen Alden Coal Co. purchased the homes almost a century ago and subsequently abandoned them.

Alongside Art of the State 2023, Hower will be part of a two-person show on “abandoned prisons” at the Howard County Arts Council in Ellicott City, Maryland, that opens in December.

Hower also booked a solo show featuring about 40 photographs on “abandonment and graffiti” at The Boyer Gallery of The Hill School in Pottstown that opens in January.

In addition to preparing for his upcoming exhibits, Hower continues to work on his portfolio of abandoned prisons. In the past year, he took trips to Ohio and Tennessee with that purpose and is “taking any opportunity as they arise really,” he said.

Click here to view more of Hower’s photography.

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