#Pixburgh: A Photographic Experience, at the Sen. John Heinz History Center, manages to deftly summarize the feeling of the city through its title alone. The current exhibition of photographic works documenting the evolution of the Steel City plays well with words before the first image is even revealed. Yes, “Pix” is short for pictures. But it also references how we pronounce our city’s name in our own unique and mellifluous (ear of the beholder) dialect. It’s simultaneously self-promotional and self-deprecating, a position that’s come to be typical of Pittsburghers who’ve been around town long enough that beneath the superhero cape of the shiny green present we still carry the sooty mantle of decades past.
What we can see here goes back much farther, in a set of about 400 photos curated by museum staff from the Center’s extensive archives of donated and collected images, and ranging from official-looking documentation and formal portraiture to picks from family albums. (During the course of the exhibit, other images were contributed by the public via the Center’s website.) We start midway through the 19th century, and focus begins with the collective, moving on to the personal. Early within the collection are streets and landmarks barely recognizable, streets submerged in flood, a clock that provided the meeting point for thousands upon thousands of Downtown visitors, the excavation of tunnels, and the greatest home run in the history of baseball. (If you’re not sure to what this last refers, welcome to Pittsburgh. You’ll love it here.)
Sections are devoted to family portraits, work, play, ceremony. We see smiling female pilots, wearing summer dresses, standing in front of small planes; candy makers; factory employees. A 1920s shot of Harbison Walker brick-makers demonstrates an enviable sense of ease between white men and black men who labor together.
- Photo courtesy of the Heinz History Center
- Kids on the Irene Kaufmann Settlement’s rooftop playground, in the Hill District, in 1924
A section features the family members not related by blood, with a cat or two, mostly dogs, even a horse. There are candid shots of hounds primed to hunt or in repose in the living room; being fed beer or milk; fulfilling their duties as team mascots. A portrait of Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is particularly intriguing and glorious. Tanner is finely dressed, elegantly posed, reading material in hand, Dalmatian at his feet. Considering how long it would have taken to effectively produce a daguerreotype in the 1860s, two things are evident: First, it was important to Tanner that his dog be included. Second, the dog is a good boy.
While dogs dominate, there is a spectacular shot of two solemn children in a cart being pulled by a goat. The goat is also solemn.
Children scream and laugh on terrifying wooden roller-coasters, adults in muumuus and Hawaiian shirts raise glasses to each other and the camera. Men display fish for posterity and proof; women guffaw heartily in billowing chiffon dresses; children climb on jungle gyms.
The tools among those used to create the images are on hand as well, ranging from a 1920s Deardorff & Sons behemoth from the Westinghouse Museum, and a 1950s Polaroid (with text noting that “shake it like a Polaroid picture” became a catchphrase so popular that it was used in a hit song — yeah, that would be “Hey Ya,” by OutKast, and it topped the charts 50 years later), to Time magazine’s 2007 “Invention of the Year,” the first-generation iPhone.
- Photo courtesy of the Heinz History Center
- Night view of 1939 Pittsburgh skyline
This is the evolution of photography, literally, tangibly. But the physical manifestation of the contraptions necessary to preserve an instant in time tells a lot about how the photograph, and how we document our lives, has changed in a century-and-a-half.
Today, there’s nothing easier. With whatever generation of iPhone it is we’re on at the moment, in a matter of minutes we can capture a hundred reproductions; after that, in a matter of seconds we can share those with anyone from one select individual with whom we entrust our likeness, to the entire world. It costs us nothing. Its value is diminished by its ubiquity.
It used to be hard. The equipment was unwieldy. You needed more than one piece of gear. There were multiple steps. It was dear. And so we were selective. We were making an investment, and a lot of thought went into what we chose to preserve.
Happily, some people picked two children and a goat.