Old Developments | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


Old Developments

In a series of new exhibits, Pittsburgh confronts its past -- again


Steel mills belching flame and smoke. Hill District kids in fedoras, waiting for a Saturday matinee. Billboard slogans so direct you can't imagine them ever working. ("Ralph Kiner says EAT TOWN TALK for lots of hustle.") Laundry out on the line, collecting soot even as it dries.

What images could be more familiar than these, currently hanging at the Carnegie Museum of Art? What could be more innocuous than the Pittsburgh we all remember, whether we were alive back then or not?

At the same time, what could be more dangerous?

The Carnegie's dual exhibits -- Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer and Witness to the Fifties -- might seem like harmless nostalgia for the days when steel was king, when there was still such a thing as Isaly's. Swank's work dates from the 1920s through his death in 1944; Witness focuses on pictures taken of Pittsburgh between 1950 and 1953. The exhibits are joined by a third show of similarly dated photographs at the Concept Art Gallery, in Regent Square, and the release of a documentary film about Clyde Hare, one of the most prolific of Pittsburgh photographers.

All three shows hearken back to what Concept calls Pittsburgh's "Golden Age of Photography," between the 1920s and 1950s. All three remind us of a time when everyone wore hats, and when everything -- from television shows to political issues -- appeared in black and white.

But Pittsburghers are famous for seeing their city in terms of what used to be here -- so much so that some regard these images warily, convening task forces to address the city's "image gap." So in 2002 and 2003, when city leaders launched a "Regional Branding Initiative" to coordinate Pittsburgh's marketing efforts, they sought to curtail our fixation on pictures like the ones in these exhibits.

"Keep heritage imagery down to a minimum," the Initiative's Web site (www.brandpittsburghregion.info) urged. "[W]e want to communicate a city that is forward-thinking yet still celebrates its heritage. Look for images that tie heritage to innovation and transformation. ... [N]ot all historic photography is good."

The photography keeps returning anyway. In the past quarter century, the Carnegie has featured a dozen exhibits concerning Pittsburgh photography. Some concentrated on contemporary photographers and contemporary visions, but more often the "golden age" is where our focus lies.

This is, for example, the Carnegie's third exhibit of Luke Swank's work since 1980. Witness to the Fifties is the second Carnegie exhibit to feature work by the same team of photographers. In the same period, the Carnegie has displayed the work of Pittsburgh Courier photographer Teenie "One Shot" Harris, and two exhibitions by W. Eugene Smith -- most recently in the 2001 show Dream Street, which featured his own mid-century Pittsburgh photos.

Like it or not, when people imagine Pittsburgh, outdated photos like these are the first pictures they see. Why? After half a century, why are newer visions of Pittsburgh so slow to develop?

It's ironic that today's PR boosters feel such ambivalence toward "heritage imagery." Many of those images were part of a PR campaign themselves.

Witness to the Fifties commemorates the work of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, a photographic survey to document Pittsburgh's first rebirth. As the exhibit notes, the Library was the "brainchild of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development," a consortium of the city's leading business interests. Its goal "was to use photography as a vehicle to educate the local community and the nation on the program of civic improvements that came to be known as the Pittsburgh Renaissance."

Pittsburgh, it seems, has suffered from its legendary "low self-esteem" for nearly 60 years. A 1947 issue of Life magazine displayed in the exhibit, for example, notes that during the 1930s, Pittsburgh had "turned its attention inward, and began to talk of ... having reached its peak, of preparing for decline." Even in the good old days, they were longing for the days before.

To counteract that sense of decline, city leaders sought to restore the city's depleted energies. They launched an ambitious program of environmental rehabilitation and urban renewal, and they also sought to restore Pittsburgh's confidence by publicizing their efforts. They, too, sought images tying "heritage" to "transformation."

From 1950 to 1953, the Library was the chief source for those images. Photographers including Harold Corsini and Clyde Hare were hired from across the country to document the city's progress. In their photos, one frequently sees Pittsburghers with their heads craned upward, following the demolition and construction high above them. Everywhere they (and we) look in these photos, the old is giving way to the new. This is most explicit in one of Hare's photographs of the Gateway Center project: We see the metal-skinned office towers framed by, and filtered through, the husk of a demolished brick building in the foreground. The Regional Branding Initiative couldn't ask for better.

Yet looking at these photographs today, it's hard to see these images except through a frame of loss. Take another Hare photo, "Last Steam Train," a requiem for the steam-driven locomotives that were outlawed by Renaissance pollution controls. Hare shoots the locomotive at the foot of a hill: The sun has dipped behind the ridge, and the train itself is enshrouded in shadow. Almost all you can see is the cloud of steam trailing behind it. The image is unmistakably elegiac, a literal last gasp hanging on the air.

On the other hand we have Hare's oddly haunting photo of a newly constructed suburb. When it was shot, the photo no doubt promised the American dream to a generation of cooped-up Pittsburghers. Today, though, we're struck by the artificial and treeless landscape, by how isolated the homes seem. There are kids playing on the street, but in the spare landscape they look creepy -- like Children of the Corn whose fields were subdivided into quarter-acre lots.

This mournful quality, this sense of loss coupled with gain, might not have been what the Allegheny Conference had in mind. But it is probably also why we still care about these images -- and what separates them from so many PR efforts today.

One thing that separates art from propaganda is that unlike the booster, the artist tends to elude, and even undermine, the agenda of his patrons. In that sense, the Photographic Library's patrons hired the best, and worst, person in America to be their director: Roy Stryker.

Though not a photographer himself, Stryker had already directed two landmark photographic projects: The first was a documentary series for Standard Oil. The other, for the Farm Security Administration, was a New Deal-sponsored survey of rural life during the Depression. This was an unsparing look at work-worn men and care-worn women scraping at drought-ravaged land. Stryker had both lauded capitalism's greatest success and decried its worst failures.

In Pittsburgh, his photographers did both those things.

Consider Elliot Erwitt's "Man Begging on Wood Street," which sounded an ominous note about the limits of Downtown Pittsburgh renewal -- a warning city leaders today would do well to attend. A black man stands with tin cup and cane beside a jewelry-store window. "My eyes were shot out in a mine," explains the placard over his chest. Beside him is a woman who is also blinded -- not by industrial tragedy but by complacency. Her back is to us, and to the man who stands right beside her, as she peers through the display window at the jewelry inside.

Such images could be hamfisted, of course. But in photos documenting Pittsburgh's social needs, there is only a powerful, palpable sense of sorrow. Take Regina Fisher's "Dave Sole, 602 Lockhart Street, Asleep": The viewer might easily overlook the sleeping figure in the bed, or mistake it for some cast-off clothing. What commands our attention is the wheelchair in the foreground, and the disembodied prosthetic legs -- wearing pants and shoes but missing a torso -- seated in a chair on the wall. We put the clues together, and regard the slight figure in the bed with growing horror.

As Hare told the curators of the 1997 Carnegie exhibit Pittsburgh Revealed, Stryker sent his photographers into poorer neighborhoods "even though ... those neighborhoods weren't considered a positive portrayal of the city. But Roy didn't give a damn -- he wanted us to capture all parts of the city because he felt they were important."

But the photos also included moments of pure visual delight, such as Erwitt's snow scene commemorating the Thanksgiving blizzard of 1950. Here, as in any snowstorm, the world is momentarily transformed by a blanket of white, while two women walking down the street are transformed by heavy cloaks of black. To our eyes, they could almost be wearing burkas. The familiar is suddenly foreign, and full of possibility.

More mixed emotions are prompted by the Hill District photos of Richard Saunders, the only black photographer on Stryker's team. The Renaissance "redevelopment" of the Hill still prompts ambivalence; a vibrant cultural scene was swept away along with the area's desperate slums. Saunders captures both parts of that legacy, often in the same image. His photographs of African-American church services, for example, are both a celebration and a rebuke: The worshippers are caught up in religious ecstasy, but behind them we can see the paint peeling from the walls.

Many of Stryker's protégés became noted figures in their own right. As noted in Witness to the Fifties, the 1999 book on which the Carnegie exhibit is based, Stryker's photographers "were mostly young," and "almost all of them went on to have distinguished professional careers." Their work in Pittsburgh won national acclaim for themselves and the city, appearing in New York museums and national magazines.

Yet there were tensions from the outset. In 1950, Stryker's team exhibited its work at the Carnegie show People in Pittsburgh. Response was mixed.

"Clearly, the intent was to show the good work of numerous Chest agencies," writes Clarke Thomas in an essay accompanying the Witness book. "[B]ut it also demonstrated some of the community needs." While the images offered visual proof that more money was needed, "That presumably was not what some of the business leaders on the Community Chest board had in mind."

The Pittsburgh Photographic Library lasted only three years, due in part to tensions between Stryker and his bosses. But the effort's public-spiritedness has lived on. Thanks to civic-minded decisions by the Allegheny Conference, the photographs today belong to the Carnegie Library. The Pennsylvania Room of the Carnegie's Oakland branch contains thousands of images, including those shot by the likes of Hare, Harold Corsini and others. For prices normally below $50, you can get a print of some of the very images that grace the Carnegie's walls -- and even its gift shop. These aren't original prints, of course, but they are an affordable part of our heritage. (An original print of photos from the same period, by comparison, will cost you $850 at Concept.)

Perhaps more importantly, the Library embodied an honesty often lacking in efforts to celebrate progress today. Pittsburgh's business leaders had the sense to hire Stryker, a man strong-willed enough to defy their propagandistic instincts. And Stryker assembled a team of photographers whose pictures rejected both boosterism and nostalgia. They didn't make good PR, or even good social policy. They made art. Otherwise, their images wouldn't still hold us.

"Pittsburgh used to be a black-and-white town, and the skies were middle gray." So says Clyde Hare during the recently released documentary The Majesty of Man: Clyde Hare's Pittsburgh.

There is poetry in that description of the landscape, and in the images to be made from it. Consider one of Hare's photos on display at the Concept Art Gallery: At the top of the scene is a clouded Pittsburgh sky, the sun everywhere and nowhere to be seen. At bottom is the long, lurking shape of a steel mill. On the hillside in between are stacked ranks of homes. It's both geography and allegory: Paradise above, Hell below, and the neighbors -- like all of us -- eking out a living in between.

No wonder that Pittsburgh held Hare's interest for decades. No wonder either that this landscape gave rise to Luke Swank, celebrated in the Carnegie's other exhibit, Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer.

Born in 1890 to a family of prosperous Johnstown merchants, Swank began experimenting with photography in the 1920s. Not surprisingly, Johnstown's Bethlehem Steel mill featured prominently in his work from the outset.

Swank's early images were in the "pictorialist" mode, an early-20th-century style in which photographers used darkroom tricks to make their photos look like impressionistic paintings. Seen from the outside, Swank's mills were almost dreamlike, hulking creations wreathed in shadow and smoke. On the inside, Swank photographed workers tending to the fires, bathed in cathedral-like shafts of light.

But eventually the smoke began to clear -- at least from the photos. By the 1930s, Swank's camera was zeroing in on warrens of ductwork and piping. Edges begin to harden, the lines of his mills began to sharpen. His blast furnaces began to function as abstractions, arrangements of light and shadow, form and void.

The Carnegie exhibit highlights the shift by juxtaposing two images of the same mill, shot from the same street. Swank developed the two prints eight years apart, however, and the resulting images seem to come from two different worlds. In the second print, Swank has abandoned his darkroom sleight-of-hand, creating a starker, harder-edged image. In his earlier work, the iron seems as insubstantial as shadow; in later images, the shadows seem as brittle as iron.

Swank's work, like that of such famed photographers as Margaret Bourke-White, had become increasingly abstract, notable for its dramatic use of light and shadow. He had, in other words, become the "modernist photographer" of the exhibit's name. And his imagery shifted from impressionistic to cubist in photos such as the one, currently hanging at Concept Art Gallery, that he took of a pawnshop. Offered for sale in the store window, beside the radio and the "Old Gold/Unredeemed Pledges" sign, is a guitar that almost could have been taken from a Picasso collage, so cubist is the image's feel.

Stryker's team of photographers, one senses, sought a graphic structure to place upon the human drama before them. Swank worked the other way around: He sought a human drama that could fit the structure he had in mind. How long must he have waited, in his 1935 photo "Man Crossing a City Street," for the pedestrian to step into the wedge of light lying in wait at the curb?

Indeed, Swank routinely made cagey use of Pittsburgh's crazy-quilt street patterns, creating what Carnegie exhibit curator Howard Bossen calls an "urban poetry." The trolley tracks in his Downtown street scenes, for example, carry you across the image as explicitly as the lines of perspective an art instructor might trace over a Renaissance painting. (One could argue that Swank was going beyond modernism. Such transparency, in which a work explicitly acknowledges its own formal structures, has a postmodernist flair.)

Aesthetic, rather than documentary, concerns dominated Swank's work. Accordingly, Swank's work betrays little of the social consciousness seen in Witness to the Fifties. When he tried, the results could be cloying. Take his 1930s photo "Three Boys in a Wagon," a warmly integrated image of a white child with his arm around two black ones. It's a Hallmark moment, at odds with almost everything going on outside the frame at the time.

Swank did few portraits, and for all his steel-mill footage, the steelworkers appear merely as distant icons. Swank's camera never gets close to them in any sense. In person, Swank liked to trade on a working-class image, but he appears to have retained a studied patrician detachment. His family name may have got him inside Johnstown's mills, but it also seems to have held him at some distance from the people inside.

Perhaps significantly, Swank's most affecting portraits are of people whose faces are masked: circus clowns in garb and make-up. Clown-art clichés about notwithstanding, there is something harrowing about his "Clown Face" photos from 1930. The clowns are grimacing, unsettling figures whose faces resemble masks from a Japanese kabuki production.

By the mid-1930s, Swank's work was being exhibited in the Julien Levy gallery and other New York temples of culture. From his perch in Western Pennsylvania, Swank kept pace with the art world's avant-garde. He exhibited with, and was hailed by, some of the most enduring names in American photography: Bourke-White, Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz.

Unlike them, however, he has been almost entirely forgotten. Bossen himself had never heard of him until a stint teaching at Carnegie Mellon University brought him in contact with the Carnegie's photographic archives. "This magnificent work started coming out of the boxes," Bossen recalls. "I asked [the librarian], 'Who made these photographs?' She said, 'Luke Swank,' and I had to admit I didn't know who he was."

Bossen cites several possible explanations for Swank's obscurity. He died young, at 54, and never reaped the benefits of photography's postwar popularity. Then too, the same Western Pennsylvania roots that inspired his work also limited its reach. Swank lived and worked in Pittsburgh until his death, doing commercial projects for companies such as Heinz. "There's a lot to be said for living in New York," Bossen laments.

Bossen is upfront about his agenda: "If 10 years from now, students are studying Luke Swank along with Ansel Adams, then this exhibit will have done its job." (The Carnegie exhibit even helps with the lesson plan. Display tables, for example, reproduce the photos with transparent grids overlaid atop them, allowing the viewer to see how Swank used the same structure in very different-looking images.) But his show may not just re-establish Swank's credentials. It may also burnish those of the city Swank photographed.

Would magazines including Life have printed so many Pittsburgh photographers, after all, were it not for the city's epic steel mills, and their photogenic proximity to intimate urban neighborhoods? (See, for example, Harold Corsini's image of Fineview Hill on page 24.) Would Swank's images have appeared in the Museum of Modern Art less than a decade after he began serious photography?

If photography got its due as an art form, if Pittsburgh got its due as a city, we might see these photos differently. We might stop talking about them in terms of what they tell us about steel, or the Pittsburgh Renaissance. Instead, we might notice how the city's hillsides flatten out perspective, creating an imagistic flatness that 1950s Abstract Expressionist painters sought to emulate. We might think of Pittsburgh as being what the garden at Giverny was to Monet: a landscape which prompted, and was transformed by, a powerful artistic vision.

Sadly, Pittsburghers themselves have trouble seeing the city that way. Bossen's catalogue may laud "Benkovitz's Fish Market" for its "mix of light and shadow and ... compositional precision." But for many Pittsburghers, the chief aesthetic response will be: "Hey, look! Benkovitz's!" Swank was a modernist, but locally, his appeal has much to do with looking to the past.

Of course, Swank's photos of clowns and rural landscapes are often tinged by nostalgia. As he once wrote to gallery owner Julien Levy, he often sought "to be illustrating the things that are passing in our American scene. The Circus ... the river steamboat, the log cabin ... the carnival -- all are passing. All are very American."

Add to this list the steel industry. To a Johnstown boy like Swank, few things would have seemed more fixed, more permanent, than the mills. But today, his images of steel are as fleeting as his photos of the circus leaving town. They haunt us as the carnival once haunted him.

But why? Why do Swank's photos, and those shot by Stryker's team, still enrapture us?

There are, after all, strong photographs being taken of Pittsburgh today. Mark Perrot and Charlee Brodksy have documented steel's decline as powerfully as earlier photographers documented its height. And earlier this year, the Silver Eye Center for Photography featured Pittsburgh NOW, a survey of the city by nine local photographers (including City Paper's Heather Mull). Some of these images, such as Annie O'Neill's photo of a female contractor on a rooftop, are nearly icons themselves -- symbols for a city that still plays at being tough, but that has also prettied up a bit, and become more diverse than Big Steel ever was.

The folks behind the Regional Branding Initiative count it as a victory every time such images attract attention, every time a travel writer expresses surprise that Pittsburgh isn't so polluted after all. But that begs a question: A half-century after Hare's last steam train left the station, why are people still surprised by the news?

The answer, perhaps, is that our "heritage imagery" doesn't really belong to the past at all. It is too much a part of the present, satisfying some need Pittsburgh itself no longer fulfills.

It's not that we would return to the old days. We know, after all, that people had to actually breathe the smoke that dramatizes Swank's steelscapes. Perhaps we prefer the old images because they allow us to see beyond -- or overlook -- the hardships they depict. We are, perhaps, not as honest with ourselves as the founders of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library were.

Or perhaps the New Pittsburgh is just less picturesque. Photos of researchers bent over microscopes or computer keyboards are simply less interesting than Swank's steelworkers, bathed in flame.

But it's more than that. The forces unleashed by CMU's microchips and UPMC's petri dishes are as Promethean as steel ever was. But they are forces few of us will ever understand, let alone master. The epic heroes in the steel-industry photos of Swank or Hare could have been the guy next door. That's harder to say about today's industries, unless you live in the East End.

In some ways, Pittsburgh hasn't changed much since the 1950s. Back then, we believed it when billboards told us TOWN TALK gave us "lots of hustle." Today, PR officials promise they can create hustle, just by talking about town. City leaders once hoped to replace old buildings and communities; today's leaders look warily upon old photographs.

But these archival images remind us that something has changed. Pittsburgh is still engaged in myth-making, but the myths no longer seem to matter as much. For a century, America's prosperity was unthinkable without the industrial capacity Pittsburgh represented. Now, America has little need to think of us at all. Few people outside of Pittsburgh have a stake in our dreams of progress; many of us inside Pittsburgh aren't as connected to them either. Maybe newer images attract less notice simply because the city warrants less attention.

As Hare notes in the film documentary about his work, he photographed steel when the workers handled it themselves -- with no computers or robots to mediate between them and the titanic forces they controlled. "They were watching it," he says of the molten steel, "with their own eyes."

Decades later, we go on watching, blinking at a searing vision still burned on our retinas. Like a slab of metal, or the flash of the camera just after the picture is taken.


Add a comment