The woman had pulled the photographs from a closet: images of wartime Germany belonging to her uncle, a 92-year-old U.S. military veteran who survived D-Day. Were they worth anything?
Scott Yoss, chief archivist and educator at Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History, leafs through the stack of black-and-whites. Around him, display cabinets section this North Side former rowhouse and line its walls with framed images from the first century of photography, dating to the Daguerreotype, perfected in 1839.
In six climate-controlled rooms are some 2,000 images by photographers famous (Brady, Curtis, Adams) and anonymous: Civil War photos; gorgeous 1880s portraits of Native Americans; and 1890s mugshots -- baseball cards for crooks, including height, weight, alias and crime. Also, 1,000 pieces of gear, including wood-cabinet view cameras big as breadboxes; an underwater camera resembling a bathysphere; and bulky stereoscopes, the Viewmasters of the pre-plastic world.
Photo Antiquities' pride is about 20 of the late Sun-Telegraph photographer Ed Salamony's striking shots of early 1930s residents of a Strip District shantytown. Photo Antiquities claims they're the world's only photographic representations of how hard the Great Depression hit Pittsburgh.
Yoss, soul-patched and sideburned, guides visitors through the history of photography, and through the museum, with a carnival barker's gusto, throwing in quotes from William S. Burroughs and late comedian Bill Hicks. Photo Antiquities was founded, in 1994, by Bernie's Photos and Pittsburgh Custom Darkroom owner Bruce Klein; six years ago, Klein and partner Frank Watters' private collection went nonprofit. Some day, tours will be longer: Photo Antiquities plans to exhibit many more of its half-million images, and 90,000 styles of gear, once it moves a few blocks away to the old Allegheny Social Hall, a building the museum saved from demolition.
Daguerreotypes have endured so well that they're not rare; one can buy a generic specimen on eBay for $35. But how do you put a price on images preserving antique instants?
Proceeding with his assessment, Yoss tells the woman that most of her uncle's Germany pictures -- Nazi rallies, Hitler at a soldier's hospital bedside -- are mass-produced propaganda. "They're lovely, because they were in the hands of a young man who put his life on the line," says Yoss. But, he adds, while the pictures might fetch a few bucks at a trade show, "There's no need to have them insured."
Photo Antiquities 531 E. Ohio St., North Side. $6.50 ($5 students/seniors; $3 kids under 12; free for kids under 3). 412-231-7881 or www.photoantiquities.org