Review: Pittsburgh Past Present Future

A review of the recent show at the Silvery Eye Center of Photography.

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Past Present Future: Western Pennsylvania’s People and Places, the inaugural show at the new Silver Eye Center of Photography, in Garfield/Friendship, reveals the Steel City in a state of unending transformation. Melancholic, pensive, and at times spooky, the show presents 40 photographers across 100 years of work. The images are organized in a series of thematic units--Athletics, landscape, industry, life in the postindustrial rust belt, and more.

Pieces are grouped in rows, forming a cluster of pictures. Historical and contemporary artists are mixed together, with the only common thread being artwork that is in conversation with the past – past styles, past ways of life and aging neighborhoods in stages of transition. Towering figures like Eugene Smith, Charles “Teenie” Harris, and Duane Michaels depict a noir-ish city drenched in shadow and light.

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These figures are juxtaposed with Western Pennsylvania artists, such as Dan Wetmore, Ross Mantle, Sue Abramson, or experimental filmmaker Ross Nugent. Surprising stories, visual echoes and historical resonances come up in these juxtapositions. Nugent’s Steel Mill Rolling – the only moving-image work in the show – with its enigmatic mill, from Farrell, PA, is brought to life with a hypnotic electronic soundtrack, and dialogues with themes of aesthetic modernism, nostalgia and industrial decline in the rest of the show.

Some of the most intriguing images are removed from the milltown mythos. Esther Bubley’s 1950s images of the Children’s Hospital, offer eerie monochrome and striking close-up of doctors at work. Pamela Bryan’s ghost signs from small town PA overwhelm the picture frame with a surprising monumental scale. Aaronel deRoy Gruber’s panoramic, depopulated cityscapes mine the past for an aura of what-has-been.

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A sense of spatial identity is strongly felt in all these artworks, which is a function of the thoughtful curating. The city itself is a simple theme but is taken in many directions. In the end, the exhibition reveals that no single image can sum up or define Pittsburgh’s essence. Instead what matters is the sense of beautiful mystery that these images create. We are left with a lingering desire to see more, to produce or seek out more images knowing full well that nothing will lessen the city’s grip on our imagination.