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Above center: Luke Swank, Looking at a Man through a Car Window, c.1934, Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Above right: Charles "Teenie" Harris, Rosebud, The Photographic Archive of Charles "Teenie" Harris, Carnegie Museum of Art 

Napoleon Bonaparte, perhaps anticipating the mixed reviews he’d receive in the annals of history, once professed, “History is a set of lies agreed on.” Pretty cynical, yes. But he wasn’t the first or the last to have a less than savory view of historians. Written history is, after all, open to lots of interpretation.

Photography, however—as practiced by documentary-style photographers and photo journalists—doesn’t interpret its subjects. It records them in forever-frozen moments in time. Those moments tell stories. About individuals. About families and communities. About history. And they do it perhaps better than words, sometimes even more poetically. Maybe that’s because they speak in a universal language: no translation necessary.

This issue of Carnegie magazine features the work of a number of photographic storytellers who chose Pittsburgh as their subjects. The stories told by Luke Swank speak of man and machine, and the everyday moments of the men and women who lived and labored in western Pennsylvania from the mid-to-late ‘20s through the start of the second World War (see page16). Swank died prematurely in 1944, but the striking, sometimes gritty, modernist photography he pioneered quickly caught on throughout the country.

In the early 1950s, the time of Pittsburgh’s first renaissance, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development commissioned the best of the country’s photo documentarians to record the city’s progress. Dubbed the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, the project produced some 23,000 photos—23,000 stories—of the everyday: families, street scenes, and the construction taking place as part of the city’s first official renewal (see page 18).

Teenie Harris, longtime photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, focused his camera’s eye predominantly on one Pittsburgh neighborhood—the Hill District. Harris was so prolific that he left behind the equivalent of a few novels about the Hill in its heyday. Now owned and cared for by Carnegie Museum of Art, Harris’ images—all 80,000 of them—are slowly being identified and archived with the help of community groups and individuals. They’ll eventually provide Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers with a fantastic chronicle of a piece of their past (see page 34).

The experience of looking at that past, straight on, isn’t always a happy one. One former Hill District resident, now a nuclear physicist in Stockholm, stopped at the Trolley Station Oral History Center in Homewood on a recent visit home and spotted a Teenie Harris photograph that told a painful story: herself as a child, sitting with her mother and sister in a sparse room, starving.

Images of friends and loved ones lost to AIDS in the confusing and chaotic early years of the disease tell equally sad stories. In another article in this issue (see page 26), in recognition of World AIDS Day on December 1, we recall—in words and images—the late-1980s, when the arts community was being decimated by a disease few understood and everyone had learned to fear. Its members took action, leading to one of the most effective public consciousness-raising campaigns ever, symbolized by a simple red ribbon. Today, an image of a woman behind a veil touting the AIDS red ribbon tells a story of success and failure. Success in the United States to at least curb the spread of AIDS, but failure in the world at large to stop what we’ve learned is a very stoppable disease.

Quite a story in one simple photograph. And in years to come, quite a history lesson. Maybe one even Napoleon could trust.

Betsy Momich

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