Do you have information on where I can find old images of Pittsburgh? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Views » You Had to Ask

Do you have information on where I can find old images of Pittsburgh?

Question submitted by: Scott Reinard, Crescent, Pa.

by

comment

You know, a lot of people wouldn't touch this question. For example, the people behind the ill-starred "Pittsburgh Regional Branding Initiative" -- a booster group that seeks to market the region by devising indecipherable marketing statements -- urges photographers and designers to "keep heritage imagery down to a minimum" in their brochures. Because while it "is important to celebrate the past ...not all historic photography is good." We don't want all that history getting out, see, because people already think Pittsburgh never changes.

 

But you're in luck, my friend. Not only do I not give a damn about "branding" Pittsburgh, but back in my younger days, I collected many of these photos to decorate the apartment -- all for those rare occasions when I had company over. And believe me, nothing impresses the ladies more than being able to demonstrate -- with pictures! -- the intricacies of the open-hearth process. You can tell it drives 'em wild because they keep checking their watches; you can almost see them thinking, "I want to remember the passing of each second of this fascinating experience."  What follows is just a sample of a few of the places worth checking out.

 

For a primer on old photographic techniques, I recommend a visit to East Ohio Street's Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History. There's a lot of Wild West footage there, but you'll see some historic Pittsburgh postcards and other local stuff too. And while the Strip District's Heinz History Center has been laying off staff in recent weeks, it does offer a nice collection of photos for reprint. If you're a member you can visit the archives free of charge; others can also check out (and order from) its photographic archives at www.pghphotos.org/. Hurry before the center ships the work overseas, in the best local tradition of cost-cutting.

 

But your best bet is probably the Carnegie Library's Pittsburgh Photographic Library, a collection of some 50,000 local images, many of which can be reprinted at a nominal fee. (It can take a couple of weeks for your order to be filled, but you can use that time to brush up on how open-hearth furnaces work. The chicks dig it.) Many of those images date from the 1950s, when the University of Pittsburgh began assembling a photographic library of the cityscape. The school hired Roy Stryker -- who'd already earned acclaim directing Depression-era photo essays by Dorothea Lange for the government -- to curate the collection.

 

Stryker's goal, according to the library, was "[t]o enable people in the rest of the country to see modern Pittsburgh as it really is, not only as the nation's workshop and the heart of heavy industry, but as a dynamic city with an implemented plan for the future." It was sort of the Branding Initiative of its day, but without the marketing mantras, and Stryker commissioned works from some of the big names in Pittsburgh photography: people like Luke Swank, Clyde Hare, and Harold Corsini. The library is also collecting images from other sources, most notably Teenie Harris, the Pittsburgh Courier's legendary chronicler of African-American life. The images are stored in an old-fashioned card catalog in the Oakland branch's Pennsylvania Department; some can also be seen at http://www.store.yahoo.com/carnegielibraryofpittsburgh/.

 

There are several good books of Pittsburgh photography out there too. Some of the best shots ever taken by the aforementioned Clyde Hare are collected in Clyde Hare's Pittsburgh. An interesting approach to local history is Pittsburgh: Then and Now by Arthur Smith, who pairs photos of the current city landscape with archival images of what used to be there. You can prove that Pittsburgh does change after all, often by replacing historic buildings with soulless skyscrapers and highways. That should make the branding folks happy.

 

But my personal favorite is Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project. The book recounts a documentary project undertaken in the 1950s by Smith, a brilliant but irascible Life magazine photographer. Smith's photos capture both the inhuman scale of Pittsburgh's industry and the very human drama of its people. The accompanying text records how the project nearly destroyed Smith, who discovered that Pittsburgh, and the world, offers little comfort for the uncompromising genius.

 

Or at least that's what I've told myself all those nights I spent alone.

Add a comment