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.
practiced by documentary-style photographers and photo
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).
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
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