For decades he existed only as a signature, "H.C. Torrance," on the lower corners of some of the most beautiful photographs ever taken of the city of Pittsburgh. The Museum of Art's catalogue cards listed his death date as 1931, and spelled out his first and middle names. That was it.
Torrance's photographs will be displayed in the Museum of Art's forthcoming exhibition Pittsburgh Revealed: Photographs since 1850, opening in the fall of 1997. In preparation for the exhibition, museum staff and volunteers are discovering more about him and other photographers whose work and lives have fallen into relative obscurity. In the case of Hew Charles Torrance, we were in luck.
Using Carnegie Library's Pennsylvania Department sources, volunteer Doug Leibig turned up Torrance's obituary in the Bulletin for October 29, 1931. The article described a distinguished member of the Duquesne Club and Oakmont Country Club who indulged his passion for art and photography in Pittsburgh and on many trips abroad. Born in Old Comnock, Scotland, and trained at the London School of Mines, he traveled briefly to South America with his brother before coming to the United States and rising to managerial status in the steel industry. Using the obituary, we easily positioned Torrance among Pittsburgh's elite, and saw his richly atmospheric views of the smoky city as a romantic glorification of the source of his wealth and success.
However, tracking Torrance through city directories and U.S. census records revealed that he probably pulled at his bootstraps pretty firmly on the way up. According to the census, Torrance was born in 1859 and arrived in this country 20 years later. He did not marry for another 10 years, and in 1900 he and his wife, Sophia Duff Reiter Torrance, were boarding with Elizabeth Fulton at No. 5 Brushton Street. Forty- one years old, he still did not own a house. His climb up the professional ladder is documented in the city directories, where he is listed as a metal engineer in 1898 and a manager in 1909. The photographs in the Carnegie Museum of Art collection date predominantly from 1919 and later, suggesting that the time and money for pursuing art photography came to him late in life. We do not yet know where he visited when "abroad," but the numerous references to the London Salon of Photography on the backs of his work suggest that England was a frequent stop. Consequently, one wonders if his views of Pittsburgh do reflect pride in his adopted city, or responded to international curiosity about this American "hell with the lid off." In any case, Torrance's memorable images of Pittsburgh were inspired by the challenge of making beautiful photographs of a subject that many found impossibly ugly.
Louise Lippincott, Curator Department of Fine Arts, Carnegie Museum of Art
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