Perhaps no place on Minnesota’s Iron Range personifies its mythical, often misunderstood boom-calamity-boom nature better than tiny Kinney (its population flutters around two hundred), located in the middle of the Mesabi Range on Highway 169. In 1977, faced with an outdated water system and difficulty securing state or federal assistance, Kinney attempted to secede from the Union. In a letter to then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, town leaders announced that they were even prepared to declare war and surrender immediately, in an effort to expedite the delivery of foreign aid necessary to replace its water system. No official response was forthcoming, but the Republic of Kinney was born, and last July the town celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its independence.
To an outsider, the vast territory of the Range, with its gaggle of working-class towns and the unique landscapes created by its mines, does in fact have the feel of an old-world republic. The region technically encompasses the entire northeast corner of the state, including Two Harbors and Duluth, whose Lake Superior ports send Iron Range ore out into the world. But the Superior shore, and the area north and south from Ely, the Arrowhead region, has always had a distinct identity. With the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and a large swath of the Superior National Forest, this territory attracts scads of tourists and wilderness adventurers.
The heart of the Iron Range, however, has never been high on the list of Minnesota tourist destinations. It’s not hard to find native Minnesotans who’ve never even driven through the region proper, despite its fabled place in state history and the fact that so many of the town names are ingrained in Minnesota lore: Hibbing, Virginia, Chisholm, Eveleth, Mountain Iron, Biwabik.
Aside from a Bronx accent still evident after thirty-five years in Minnesota, photographer Mike Melman could easily pass as a native Iron Ranger at any Twin Cities social function. He’s got the laconic demeanor; the ruddy, slightly rumpled look of a man who’s just stepped in out of a cold wind; and the gift for being simultaneously deadpan and passionate. Not that Melman attends many social functions. He’s a rambler with a camera, “looking for places they haven’t messed up yet, but will,” and is generally out trolling for pictures in the dead of night.
Melman took a circuitous route to Minneapolis, where he has lived since 1972. Born and raised in the Bronx, he attended New York’s Cooper Union and then Berkeley to complete his architecture degree. After college he served a six-year stint in the Naval Air Reserve, stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The Navy stuck a camera in his hands and sent him up in the plastic nose of a P2V prop plane to take surveillance photos over the Atlantic.
Later, Melman went to England for several years, where he worked for architects and started taking photos in earnest. He and his wife then made the somewhat arbitrary decision to relocate to Minnesota (“a couple friends from Cooper Union ended up here, and said good things”).
Melman worked steadily in architecture and promptly retired when he turned 65. “It wasn’t exactly a successful career,” he said. “I made a conscious choice not to do my own thing, so I was always working for firms. And the problem with that is that a lot of the time you end up working on stuff you don’t believe in.”
Even as he was toiling at architecture, he was discovering that photography was the perfect medium for capturing the environment he found in the Midwest. “The move was a strange adjustment, initially. Growing up I was closed in all the time. I rarely left the Bronx. I’d look across the airshaft and see my neighbors at their table, and the elevated train passed right outside my bedroom window. I’d look out and see the passengers and they’d be looking right back at me. They didn’t look very happy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I craved space.”
Even so, Minnesota was an acquired taste, Melman acknowledges. “It didn’t take me long, though, to become quite addicted to all the space, the sky and clouds, the light and all the different kinds of weather you get here. Not to mention the sort of desertion you can encounter in the winter and the middle of the night.”
All of those things—light, sky, space, and, particularly, desertion—have become trademarks of Melman’s photography. If anything, in fact, he has become somewhat notorious for the austerity and desolation of his pictures. He works very hard to exclude people, cars, and even trees in his shots. “People sometimes get appalled when I explain this,” Melman said. “And I like trees just fine; I just don’t want them in my pictures. I like the pure geometry of land, buildings, and sky, and the trees just confuse everything.”
From the late ’80s through the ’90s, Melman (who does not own a car, and often travels by Greyhound bus) took photos all over the state. Most were nocturnes, or images captured at first light, for a project that eventually became his book The Quiet Hours, published in 2003. Then, at the suggestion of his editor at the University of Minnesota Press, Melman started poking around on the Iron Range. In 2006, he received a State Arts Board Initiative grant for a project there, and made twelve trips north that year.
The culture of the Iron Range turned out to be a perfect fit for a guy who is fond of saying that he’d like to turn back the clock to the 1950s. “I see so much stuff—the strip malls, the condos, the crap along the freeways—and I’m always wondering, ‘Is this the future?’ ” he said recently. “Because if it is, I’m leaving. I don’t know what people are thinking. You have to wade through more and more trash to get to the good stuff.”
Melman’s version of “the good stuff” is in ample evidence in his photographs from the Range. “They’ve got a different light up there,” he said. “It’s super clear. The legendary vastness of this country is all right there, and the scale of the mining operations is just stunning. The whole culture, there’s so much beauty. Towns come and go; they live and die by the mines, but the people try like hell to stay up there. You ask these old miners what they’re going to do when they retire and they want to stay right there, maybe get a cabin, and hunt and fish. They’ve had these incredible hard times, but there’s still this preserved way of doing things. I guess I’m always surprised when anything from the old days is still intact. It’s like a miracle to me.”