A powerful exhibit takes stock of air pollution in the region | Art Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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A powerful exhibit takes stock of air pollution in the region

In the Air includes work by four accomplished photographers

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The first photograph you’ll see in the Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries exhibit In the Air is an aerial shot by Scott Goldsmith of Shenango Coke Works, on Neville Island. The plant, long one of the region’s biggest sources of air pollution, is a fitting icon for a documentary project about air quality; it’s also, as announced just weeks ago, set to close this month, for lack of business. But as this powerful show makes clear, air pollution in Pittsburgh isn’t just about a few heavily polluting plants. It’s more a way of life.

In the Air is a project of The Documentary Works, a new initiative founded by photographer Brian Cohen to explore social and environmental issues from multiple points of view. The exhibit, curated by Cohen and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Director Laura Domencic, includes work shot over the course of a year by Cohen and three other accomplished Pittsburgh-based photographers: Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson and Annie O’Neill. The show’s subtitle, “Visualizing what we breathe,” has layers of meaning in Pittsburgh, a town once infamous for its perpetual miasma of black soot. But while these days you can’t literally see what you’re breathing, the very air is still doing damage. In more than 80 images, these photographers strive to make that impact visible.

An image from Lynn Johnson’s series “Ever Present Stacks,” depicting soot from a power plant
  • An image from Lynn Johnson’s series “Ever Present Stacks,” depicting soot from a power plant

Goldsmith, for instance, doesn’t limit himself to panoramic images of industrial facilities. Because the school district that neighbors Shenango has the county’s highest asthma rates, for instance, Goldsmith also offers shots of people being treated for breathing ailments, including a woman, tubes up her nose, looking worried in a hospital bed after a respiratory attack. His large-scale black-and-white images also include shots of tanker cars derailed on a Uniontown street, disgorging their cargo of fine, lung-damaging sand bound for natural-gas fracking sites.

Some of Cohen’s color images, by contrast, are almost anomalously picturesque. The coal-fired power plant in Homer City, in Indiana County, is depicted at a distance, its smokestacks — one of the nation’s biggest single sources of sulfur-dioxide emissions — foregrounded by a wooded, fog-shrouded valley. Another notorious polluter is shot from the vantage of the Monongahela River: U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. The nation’s largest coke works stretches along the riverbank, belching shadowy smoke, its steely-gray bulk sprawling under a tarnished-silver sky, while from within the plant a single orange light glows and is reflected in the water, dead center in the frame. 

Johnson focuses hard on two communities, Cheswick and Springdale, both within seemingly inevitable eyeshot of the smokestacks of another huge emitter of sulfur dioxide, NRG’s coal-fired Cheswick Power Plant. Johnson’s 45 images, though technically color, have been processed for dinginess, with only reds and greens dimly legible, as though through a literal pall. Thirty of them are snapshot-sized photos emphasizing the ubiquitous sight of those stacks, whether over the roof of a Pizza Hut or looming behind a smiling young couple showing off their towheaded toddler. Such views might even seem darkly humorous, if not for images like fingertips that have just swept power-plant soot from a porch deck, or a close-up of a woman’s thyroid-surgery scar. As in most of the country, those most affected by pollution here are usually poor.

The idea that air pollutants harm, and kill, is well-established. But such damage is usually a slow, cumulative process. A glaring exception was 1948’s Donora smog, the result of a temperature inversion that trapped industrial pollutants at ground level for four days. O’Neill’s contribution is nine frank, large-scale, black-and-white studio portraits of Donora-smog survivors, who give their accounts in accompanying text. Alice Uhriniak recalls arriving for her shift as a switchboard operator and being told, “Hurry up and get your headset on, everybody is dying.”

The Donora smog killed 17 people, a toll that led seven years later to the nation’s first federal clean-air law. Over the decades that followed, a combination of pollution laws and de-industrialization did clean the air in many towns and cities nationally. But it’s been far from enough: Pittsburgh, for instance, remains in federal nonattainment for levels of both ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. The latter involves pollutants so tiny — invisible to the human eye — that they end up in our bloodstreams, where they can cause cardiovascular disease. In the Air references a 2010 study that estimated that air pollution from Shippingport, Pa.’s Bruce Mansfield Power Plant alone was responsible for 69 local deaths a year.

Brian Cohen’s photo of the Conemaugh Generating Station Power Plant
  • Brian Cohen’s photo of the Conemaugh Generating Station Power Plant

Big stationary polluters, however, aren’t the whole story. For instance, a major source of fine particulates is diesel exhaust from vehicles, generators and construction equipment. (The exhibit is puzzlingly short of depictions of this pollution source, though it does note such perhaps unexpected culprits as fireworks and outdoor grills.)

The In the Air Project was funded by the Heinz Endowments, whose missions include improving regional air quality. The project also has produced a handsome softcover book featuring cogent essays by journalist Reid Frazier of radio’s The Allegheny Front, excerpts of which are used as wall text for the exhibit.

The In the Air photographers are a distinguished quartet; Goldsmith and Johnson, for instance, have shot for National Geographic. Ultimately, their takes here emphasize just how tightly polluters are woven into this region’s landscape, and pollution into our lives. Goldsmith and Cohen often frame industrial plants with a vast foreground, communicating not just their combustive power but the vulnerability of what surrounds it. Cohen captures lines of rail cars, each car containing 30,000 gallons of the crude oil that has so frequently spilled or exploded, through both suburban Kilbucks Run and urban Shadyside. His shot of a lone “anthrocloud” — a man-made weather feature — floating over the Homer City plant recalls the current momentum among scientists to rename our era the Anthrocene to reflect just how much humans have remade the earth.

In the Air includes a few images of people seemingly unconcerned by air pollution, including union miners protesting federal efforts to limit greenhouse-gas emissions; one of O’Neill’s Donora survivors recalls the event that killed 17 as “like most days.” But the exhibit concludes with seven images by Johnson involving Marti Blake, who lives right by the NRG plant. With help from North Carolina-based researchers, Blake has begun collecting pollution data in her neighborhood. The researchers’ air-sampling gear suggests lunar modules that have somehow landed in leafy yards. It’s an earnest depiction of an earnest effort to fight for cleaner air, and one that reflects the seemingly endless challenge of saving ourselves from a world we were once so proud to have built.


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