Pittsburgh Revealed:  Photographs Since 1850

by Louise Lippincott

Of course you have seen the view of Pittsburgh from Mount Washington. But do you know what that view looked like in 1874? Or how it appears in infra-red light? The majestic panorama of 1908 presented here contains sights that disappeared before most of us were born, and familiar landmarks that still anchor our perceptions of place, if no longer of time. Photographs show us how our city has changed, and they show us what has not. The Museum of Art’s fall exhibition is entitled "Pittsburgh Revealed" because it unveils a city we have never seen and presents its most familiar sights afresh. Through photographs we can watch the mills go up, illuminate the landscape, and then collapse, just as—by turning the pages of an album—we can observe a child grow, age, and give way to succeeding generations. Today’s photographers continue this process of reinvention as they tinker with tradition and master new technologies; their stories become a metaphor for the life experiences of every citizen of Pittsburgh. Like us, they are drawing on the city’s strengths to make something new.

Pittsburgh Revealed is the first exhibition to consider photography in this city from the medium’s beginnings to the present. Hundreds of photographs in this all-encompassing survey have never been seen before, although almost half are in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art. Others have come from artists, attics, flea markets, private collectors, dealers, libraries and other museums. All were taken in Pittsburgh and its environs and record some aspect of its life or appearance. Consequently, the exhibition includes portraits, landscapes, industrial scenes, public events, disasters and neighborhood views presented in every conceivable format: personal snapshots, corporate documents, journalists’ records, studio portraits, engineers’ blueprints and unique artistic interpretations. There is something here to please or intrigue every visitor. Through this exhibition we hope to promote the preservation of Pittsburgh’s photographic heritage and to inspire new generations of artists.

Photography, capturing light from an image onto a chemically treated surface, began in France and England in 1839. It reached Pittsburgh by 1840, and a decade later photographic portrait studios flourished throughout the city. Many of the rare early photographic processes, such as daguerreotype, tintype and stereography, by early Pittsburgh masters are presented for the first time: Downtown in 1863, a millionaire’s son all dressed up for his stint in the Union army, a neighborhood devastated by the 1877 Railroad Strike. These are scenes we can now see again.

By the early 20th century, Pittsburgh’s fame as an industrial capital brought eminent photographers from all over the country to photograph its workers, its mills, its drama. Lewis Hine used his camera to expose the mill workers’ appalling working and living conditions in 1907–08. Alvin Langdon Coburn brought his artist’s eye to bear on the dazzling light effects of the steel-making process and the enigmatic landscapes created by its smoke. By the 1920s Pittsburgh natives R. W. Johnston, Hew Charles Torrance and Luke Swank depicted the splendor of the mills and the intimacy of the neighborhoods with the experienced eyes of insiders. Their images prove that Pittsburgh produced great photographers as well as iron, steel, glass, smoke, and money.

Photographs can tell powerful stories as well as capture beautiful images or historic moments. One can enjoy the liveliness and sophistication of Hill District society in the 1940s through news photographs by Charles "Teenie" Harris, or watch the city renew itself in the 1950s from the perspectives of Margaret Bourke-White as she hung out of airplanes, and W. Eugene Smith as he worked deep inside the neighborhoods. Their photo essays brought Renaissance Pittsburgh to life for magazine readers a half century ago, and still fascinate viewers now.

Today Pittsburgh photographers confront a subject that is once again changing and transforming itself. Photography has also changed radically in the last 30 years, with new color processes, digital imagery and liberating attacks on conventional notions of what is art, what is news, what is a photograph, what is real. For this exhibition 11 photographers have been selected to show the boundless possibilities of this new era, and they work not only with film, but also with poetry, collage, infra-red light, paint and just plain "stuff." Their invention and imagination, diversity and delight in their subject, offer us a glimpse of another unseen Pittsburgh—a future one. 

Louise Lippincott is curator of Fine Arts at Carnegie Museum of Art.

Chautauqua Photographic Company (active 1897–1911)
Home Library Group, Compromise Alley, 1904
gelatin silver print, Carnegie Museum of Art,
gift of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
Andrew Carnegie was recognizing photography’s power to shape public opinion when he encouraged Carnegie Institute to document its accomplishments with photographs such as this one. It is a portrait of a boys’ reading club sponsored by Carnegie Library, intended for publication in the Institute’s annual report for 1904. The carefully composed scene recalls Carnegie’s origins as a self-educated working boy, and it embodies the new Library’s mission of providing everyone with free access to books. This is the earliest of many images that juxtapose children with smokestacks, a popular theme in Pittsburgh photography for as long as the mills provided work and wealth.