For the past two months, I have been lucky enough to work alongside the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s REcollection Studio to curate and develop an exhibition using photographs from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (PPL).
This collection was gathered from a photography program initiated by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development in the early 1950s in an attempt to document the daily life of the American people. Led by photographer Roy Stryker, the project consisted of a group of photographers assigned to shoot Pittsburgh as it was. This venture was one of the largest photographic documentation tasks ever undertaken in America at the time.
The resulting Pittsburgh Photographic Library is a collection of over 11,000 black-and-white negatives rich with the history of Pittsburgh. My specific mission was to develop an exhibition featuring photographer Esther Bubley, one of the few female photographers who took part in the initiative. I was to go through the collection and find a compelling theme within her photographs that would best showcase her work as a photographer.
Exploring a collection this large wasn’t an easy or timely task, and at first, deciding on a theme seemed almost impossible. Bubley shot all kinds of subjects during her time with the PPL, from families to community events to hospitals to architecture, and much more.
It wasn’t until I read more about her life that I discovered exactly what I wanted people to take away from her work. In her biography, her niece (who now owns her estate collection) notes that Bubley was a “people photographer,” and had the uncanny ability to achieve intimacy with her subjects. Another author, Benjamin Ivry, mentioned that “in her quiet way, [she] was an empathetic witness to silent sufferings.” Even according to Stryker, head of the project, her subjects “didn’t realize she was there, she wasn’t invading them, she was sort of floating around. And all of the sudden they saw themselves, not unpleasantly, yet with her discernment… and they said ‘My God, it’s interesting.’ ”
After this, I knew right away that I wanted to showcase those “intimate moments,” as they are often overlooked and aren’t what one would immediately think of when considering a large city’s historical documentation.
Once I figured this out, I was able to view the collection in a new light. I understood just how rare and fleeting these moments actually were and how they proved her immense skill as a photographer. Bubley was able to capture these quiet moments and show people in very vulnerable situations. She took ordinary people doing everyday things and raised it to the level of art.
With this in mind, I was able to select the fifteen images from the collection that I believe best represent this theme. The REcollection Studio at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh works hard to digitize and catalog the PPL in order to make it available to the public through online resources – with their technology I was able to scan the negatives in immense detail and transform them into files that can now be uploaded online, or in my case, printed for exhibition.
From there, the next steps were simpler – creating wall texts and officially hanging the show in its home at the Gallery @ Main, where it will run though the end of December.
Curating an exhibition and trying to select only fifteen photographs out of a collection of over 11,000 is no easy feat. There is no right way to fully express the body of work of a singular artist. But I believe that this collection showcases a really interesting perspective on humanity and captures pieces of our city’s history that can never be relived again.
“Intimate Moments” opens November 12, 2018 and highlights those quiet moments that Esther Bubley captured, therefore showcasing the highs and the lows of life in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.
– Maggie Walter, intern