Pittsburgh - A Look Back - Photographs from 1980 - 1990

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I came back to Pittsburgh in 1976. I could see the city was changing and evolving into what would ultimately be called a "Renaissance", and I wanted to make a photographic document of this change. In 1980 I received a National Endowment for the Arts survey grant to photograph this evolutionary process, so I picked up my 8x10 Deardorff camera and started the "Pittsburgh Project".

Pittsburgh is a beautiful city nestled in the Allegheny Mountains between the Allegheny and the Monogahela rivers. These two rivers come together and form the Ohio River that runs down to the Mississippi. Pittsburgh is located right where these rivers converge to form the Ohio, which makes it a wedged shape city with rivers on both sides. Pittsburgh is a large inland port and has a huge amount of barge traffic on its rivers. You can watch this traffic from any one of 400 or so bridges that were built to span the incredible amount of water that surrounds the city. At one point in Pittsburgh's history, barges carried coal up and down the rivers to feed the steel mills which were once located on the river banks. It is said that tere was a time when people went out for a lunch break in the city and came back with a change of clothes because they had been covered with black soot floating in the air. Through out the eighties Pittsburgh was going through a transformation from a booming steel mill and blue-collar city to a more fastidious and demanding white-collar city. The steel mills up and down the three rivers were systematically being eliminated. The city was reeling with changes. New buildings were in progress, water parks were being built along the rivers, and ethnic neighborhoods were getting a face lift.

My initial photographic work focused on the city's architecture. I believe that architecture says more about the people who inhabit towns and cities than anything else. Later, I became enthralled with the topography in the area, and began to photograph vistas of the city and its surrounding areas. Through it all, however, the people I photographed played a major role in the project. Ethnic neighborhoods, with the mom-and-pop stores still existed, and those who lived, worked, and played there always treated me with respect and kindnesss and were always willing to let me photograph them and be a part of the project.

The NEA funding for the Pittsburgh Project was only for one year, but I continued to photograph the city for the next ten years until 1990. It was an exciting project for me. I discovered that it was important to me not only to document the larger-than life things that were happening, like the demolition of monumental buildings and the resulting new construction; I also wanted to photograph less obvious things tha t changed from moment to moment, such as light, time of day, and movement. I realized that I was most interested in the more obscure notion of presenting a feeling of Pittsburgh when it was having a "bad-hair day", when it was shrouded in fog, for example.

In the early years of the project I presented the photographs that I made in one-person and group shows. Over the next several years, individuals, corporations, and museums acquired them. In 1990 I left Pittsburgh to live in Chicago. I stored the negatives in a sealed metal box, but in 1993 disaster struck. I walked into my basement where I stored all my work to find that it had been flooded. Years of work was floating around in three feet of water. The Pittsburgh negatives, although in the archival box, drew dampness, and some were totally ruined. I thought that my life had somehow been compromised. Fortunately, with the development of digital technology, it became possible for me to scan, reconstruct, and repair many of the negatives. The images that survived inspired me the way only photographs can. They enabled me to revisit the Pittsburgh that I had known then, so when I visit now, I can see more clearly how the city has continued to transform itself over time.

I never had a book in mind when I started to photograph Pittsburgh. I never thought of a beginning or an ending or any type of narrative. I was really interested in each photograph being unique. I worked hard at that concept. I was relentless. Once, I waited an entire year to make one photograph for the project. Now, after twent-nine years, I want to share those visual experiences tha t I had in the past. I think we all need to look back, in order to better understand the present and how it relates to the future, and no other medium does that like photography.

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