Rust Belt Americana by Gareth Pon

I’ve always had an affinity for creators who get their hands dirty – the woodworkers, painters, and metalworkers of the world. Artisans who really get into a project that results in a tangible product. Nowadays we are so accustomed to the digital world that we let the artisanal aspects of creativity fall by the wayside. I’m guilty of living in this digital world, so part of my approach is to seek out the artisans who I can observe and hopefully touch something tangible again.

Enter Sam Sloma from Rust Belt Americana – an artisan based in Chicago, but someone who describes himself as

“digging through the garages, barns and basements of the dead”

to create beautifully hand-blended, crude jewelry that speaks to vintage enthusiasts from all over the world. I wanted to capture Sam’s process as truthfully as I could. His approach to creating jewelry is more of a rescue versus a recycle, a rejuvenate rather than a remix.

I spoke to Sam a handful of times, and originally wanted to photograph him in my studio. Call it fate or destiny, but we kept missing each other’s schedules. We finally just decided to book a dinner date and order some wings to his workshop.

I packed my Siros 800 L kit, a few gels and made my way over to his little studio without knowing what it looked like. Generally, if I’m shooting with lights I’ll over-plan and pre-prep as much as I can so things are ready once the talent arrives. This time around I approached the project like I would my street photography. I planned a little less in hopes that it would open up opportunities to stumble upon something beautiful.

And beautiful it was. I walked into Sam’s apartment, it was littered with magnificent textures – nothing was new, everything had character. One could assume that each item in his apartment had an amazing story attached to it. I made my way to the back of his apartment where I found Sam’s studio. Sam’s process starts with trawling the backyards of cities and graveyards of the past, then settles and comes to life in a small studio. I wanted to stay true to the space and highlight the raw and dense details of all his rescued pieces that really spoke to his process. This workshop fit Sam well. There were small things, old photos and knick knacks, that instantly stood out to me. After looking around for a few seconds I ended up deciding to set up a single light with a faint orange gel. I placed my Siros 800 L light outside looking into the only window in his space, hoping that it would create a beautiful glow that I could use to capture the action but also complement the light coming from his “Rust Belt Americana” neon sign in his room.

I fired off some test shots, raised the position of the light a little and then moved over some of the details in his studio. The result was great, the white walls of the room bounced the orange light beautifully into the shadows and allowed me to stay true to the ambience, mood and contrast of this small, confined space. I started by shooting photos of Sam through the door to his space. When I’m shooting with more of a docu-style shoot I always try to start wider, then move in closer as I feel more comfortable with the space. I pushed in and focused on the details to captured his process. I offered him little to no direction and just letting him work while I crafted my photographs.

After Sam sanded down a few trinkets, drilled through a few coins and added finishing details to a handful of necklaces, I asked him to swing around on his chair and pose for a few portraits. I captured him on his humble stool, in the center of his studio, amidst the nostalgia and I realized that Sam’s craft is not just beautiful, but also a small snippet from the past that I could capture and take home with me.


Chicago-based photographer Gareth Pon is a cross-cultural world traveler. He has worked with numerous brands, agencies and pioneers the use of Digital Content as a medium for creative expression in branding, marketing and documentation. He dreams of one day fulfilling his ultimate dream of going to space to capture a photo of the Earth’s curvature in zero gravity. Follow him at @garethpon