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Above left: “He had the face of a plumber and the soul of a poet,” said his cousin. Swank’s poetic soul shows in his photography.

Above center: Luke Swank, American, Filling Molds with Molten Iron II, c. 1934. Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Edith Swank Long

Above right: Skip Bridge and Dust catcher II, Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Edith Swank Long



Bumpsy Anthony, Clown, Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Edith Swank Long

“ Swank was a photographer who precisely and poetically documented working-class life. You see that in some of the people images in steel mills, or in the backyard images of the circus—the clown reading his newspaper, or resting on a bale of hay with a dog. These little moments of life carry through into his urban work.”
- Howard Bossen,
Exhibition Curator     






“With this show, an important photographer is rediscovered, not only for western Pennsylvania but for the history of photography in our country.”
– Charlee Brodsky
Carnegie Mellon University
































Esther Bubley, American, b. 1921-1998, Downtown Businessmen, 1950, Gift of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Richard Saunders, American, b. 1922-1987, Demolition Worker, Hill District, 1951, Gift of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Harold Corsini, American, b. 1919, On Fineview Hill, 1950, Gift of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh



Swank’s premature death in 1944 at the age of 54 cut short a career that had already been limited by a late start. “He was a real giant of photography who fell through the cracks of history,” says Howard Bossen, curator of Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer, now at Carnegie Museum of Art.

Left: Man with Cigar, c. 1939, Property of the Western Pennsylvania Consevancy

To Bossen, a professor of journalism at Michigan State University who discovered Swank’s work while at Carnegie Mellon University as Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Center for the Arts in Society for 2001-2002, Swank was a photographer who precisely and poetically documented his world. “You see that in some of the people images in steel mills,” he notes, “or in the backyard images of the circus—the clown reading his newspaper, or a man resting on a stack of hay bales with a dog on the ground below. These little moments of life carry through into his urban work.”

“ Swank was admired by his contemporaries, but he is under appreciated by specialists,” says Louise Lippincott, Carnegie Museum of Art curator of fine arts. “It’s our job to put him back where he belongs.”

The Subject is Pittsburgh
Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer highlights one of Carnegie Museum of Art’s strengths: its deep collection of photographic work relating to Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers.

“ We’ve made Pittsburgh photography a mission,” says Lippincott, recounting a number of the museum’s popular photography exhibitions such as the 1997 Pittsburgh Revealed, which featured images by Swank, and the 2001 Eugene Smith showcase, Dream Street. The museum owns hundreds of images taken by Swank from the mid-1920s to the early 1940s, and in 2001, it acquired the massive archive of Pittsburgh photographer Teenie Harris, containing more than 80,000 negatives. Last year, the museum announced its acquisition of the archives of McKeesport native Duane Michals. (Showing concurrently with the Luke Swank exhibition is Witness to the Fifties: Selections from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, which documents the city’s postwar renaissance and showcases photographs from the collections of Carnegie Museum of Art and University of Pittsburgh Press. See below.)

Originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Swank shot the familiar: steel mills and street scenes. By 1930, he had opened his own studio and was beginning to take on commercial work. Adept at transforming industrial parts and mundane household items into interesting abstract forms and creating vivid portraits, Swank received assignments from some of the most prestigious magazines of the day, such as Fortune and Life.

Says Pittsburgh photographer Clyde Hare, who curated the Museum of Art’s 1980 show of Swank’s work, “When I came to Pittsburgh in 1950, I was told that for visual representation, I should study (painter) John Kane and Luke Swank.”

Swank also documented the vanishing tradition of traveling circuses, capturing roustabouts, clowns, and performers offstage in haunting images. Both the industrial material and the circus “were, initially, easy local subjects,” says guest curator Bossen. “Johnstown was his home—he was surrounded by steel in those days. And the circus was an important subject to Luke Swank.” (Swank’s son, Harry, inherited the family obsession, eventually becoming part owner of a circus.)

Enlightened Amateur
Born in 1890 to a wealthy family, Swank became serious about photography after attending the Pennsylvania Agricultural College (now Penn State University) and serving in World War I. After the war, he and his first wife, Grace, along with son Harry, returned home to Johnstown, where he entered the family business as manager of a hardware store and later became manager of the family automobile dealership. In 1931, at the age of 41, he was still selling cars in Johnstown when he started exhibiting photographs.

“ He started as an enlightened amateur,” says Bossen. And the enlightened layman quickly became a luminary.

Swank wrote in December 1931 to a young Julien Levy, who had just opened a gallery in New York City and championed modernist photography at a time when few were doing this. With Levy’s help, Swank began showing his work in prestigious photography exhibitions.

Car, House, and Tree, , Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Edith Swank Long

In March 1932, Swank’s work was included with that of Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Walker Evans, Man Ray, and Edward Steichen in International Photographers at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Later that year, Swank contributed to the New York Museum of Modern Art’s first show to combine painting and photography—along with Georgia O’Keeffe and Ben Shahn. And in 1934, he placed more work than any other artist in San Francisco’s First Salon of Pure Photography, where Willard Van Dyke, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams selected photography for the show.

By 1935, the effects of the Great Depression on the Swank family businesses prompted Swank to make his passion his profession and move his family to Pittsburgh, where he became the University of Pittsburgh’s first official photographer, also creating and teaching one of the first college-level courses in photojournalism. Two years later, he left the university to open his own studio, picking up such clients as Aluminum Company of America, Calgon, Chevrolet, and General Electric.

Swank’s work with his most important commercial client, H. J. Heinz Company, introduced him to his second wife, Edith, a writer for the company. The two married after the death of Grace, and Edith served as his collaborator and business partner.

Rediscovering Swank
While Swank’s work was widely praised, exhibited, and published during his brief career, dealers like Levy found it hard to establish a market for photographic prints. Bossen’s research uncovered 1930’s price lists from Levy’s New York gallery: a Walker Evans photo priced at $15, a Swank photo at $7.50, and an original 19th-century Mathew Brady photo at $1.

Swank’s commercial work sustained him financially. But after nearly 10 years in Pittsburgh, dividing time between commercial assignments and his own prolific work, Swank died of a heart attack in 1944.

“ He died too young,” Lippincott says, “just as his reputation was being established.”

“ Swank died before there was an art market in photography, and with no images in circulation, it was hard to keep a reputation going,” Bossen notes. “His wife tried to be a good steward of her husband’s work, but was uncertain how best to do this. Due to a variety of circumstances, she was unable to place his work in a museum. She held onto it, bequeathing his photographic archive to the Carnegie Library after her death in 1974.”

Edith Swank had worked for the H. J. Heinz Company for several decades and maintained a cordial relationship with H. J. “Jack” Heinz. When the executor of her will contacted Heinz to offer Luke Swank’s collected works to the public library, he agreed to oversee the transfer.

Today, the Swank collection is shared by Carnegie Museum of Art, with 366 photographs, and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, with about 4,000 negatives, 2,400 prints, and most of his color transparencies.

Curator Bossen hopes that Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer, first shown at the Kresge Art Museum in East Lansing, Michigan, will help people rediscover Swank’s work.

Photographer Charlee Brodsky of Carnegie Mellon University agrees. In a comment she wrote for the show’s catalogue, she notes, “An important photographer is rediscovered, not only for western Pennsylvania but for the history
of photography in our country.”

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WITNESS to the Fifties

"If Luke Swank photographed places and ways of life that were disappearing, the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (PPL) documented what was replacing them. The juxtaposition of the two shows is very poignant,” explains Curator Louise Lippincott of Witness to the Fifties: Selections from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, 1950-53. The exhibition runs concurrently with the Swank exhibition in Carnegie Museum of Art’s Works on Paper gallery.

The Pittsburgh Photographic Library was a typically audacious project of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, whose leaders sought an artistic and journalistic record of the city’s first renaissance. Two members—Wallace Richards, the Conference’s secretary and then-director of Carnegie Museum of Art, and Phillip Broughton, secretary of the A.W. Mellon Trust—launched the idea of hiring the nation’s top photographers to create an archive. They would work under the direction of the legendary Roy Stryker, who had directed similar projects for the U.S. Farm Security Administration and Standard Oil. Over three years, the group shot some 23,000 images; the exhibition includes 80.

Stryker defined the PPL’s mission broadly, to include photo essays on families, street scenes, hospitals, celebrations, as well as demolition and construction. His influence on his eager staff was immense.

Recalls local photography legend Clyde Hare, 78, who was one of the project’s youngest staffers, “He was one of the most dynamic men I’ve ever known in my life. He knew every photo editor in the country. He’d debrief every photographer, before and after a shoot. If you were going to shoot a bridge, he’d send you with a two- or three-page outline. He’d want to know: Do people live there? Fish there? Does the river level change? You’d start thinking about it in a way you hadn’t before. It became a challenge to surprise him.”

The project produced the desired bank of Pittsburgh images for national publications and for a popular 1951 exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art. People in Pictures, sponsored by the city’s Community Chest agency (a precursor of the United Way), documented the varied work of local social service agencies. Renowned photographers Sol Libson and Esther Bubley, who shot many of the exhibited images, were later joined by Russell Lee, Harold Corsini, and other famous—and well-paid—photographers.

Richard Saunders, a Bermudan, documented the Hill District prior to much of its demolition to make way for the construction of the Civic Arena (now Mellon Arena). Younger photographers like Hare gained the experience of working alongside these masters, and enjoyed some attention of their own. In 1951, Life magazine’s prestigious contest for young photographers (of which Stryker was a judge) awarded prizes to Saunders, Regina Fisher, and Hare for work created through the PPL.

As initial funding ran dry, arguments on how the PPL would continue its work slowed its momentum. Stryker resigned in 1951. In 1959, five years after the project officially concluded, he intervened to preserve the negatives and images, which were transferred to the Pennsylvania Division of Carnegie Library.

“ In creating the exhibition, we tried to combine familiar, much-loved views with a few surprises,” says Lippincott. (The book Witness to the Fifties, published in 1999 by the University of Pittsburgh Press, serves as the exhibition’s catalog.) “Stryker encouraged photographers to look in all kinds of places. Documenting the way the city was growing and changing frequently involved scenes showing people. These are very human landscapes. I think you realize from them how much the region changed between 1935 and 1950.”


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