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Elliott Erwitt’s Lost Views of Pittsburgh

In 1950, Elliott Erwitt was an ambitious 22-year-old photographer with an open-ended assignment to document the city of Pittsburgh. Over the course of four months, Erwitt photographed the city’s hills under a blanket of smog; its steel bridges over the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers; crowds at baseball games at Forbes Field; and the city’s neighborhoods in a moment of transition, all in a brief sliver of time before he was drafted into the U.S. Army Signal Corps the following year. The images were made for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a project that aimed to modernize the city and hoped to document and earn support for that transition through photography. Its leaders “recognized the need for a stirring, methodical photographic documentation of the transition from the old Pittsburgh to the new,” Vaughn Wallace writes in Pittsburgh 1950 by Elliott Erwitt, published this month by GOST Books. To that end, the ACCD hired Roy Stryker, who had famously assigned photographers to document the Great Depression for the Farm Securities Administration, to manage the creation the Pittsburgh Photographic Library. Writes Wallace, “Armed with a Leica IIIC and a Rolleiflex, [Erwitt] thrived on Pittsburgh’s streets and in its neighborhoods scattered along the hillsides lining the city’s three rivers. Returning regularly to the PPL offices, he developed his photos in the Library’s darkroom, picked up more film and eagerly returned to the streets.”

Stryker’s usual method of working with photographers involved close control over their work—he often had specific shot lists, and he destroyed the negatives that didn’t make his final selection. Erwitt’s negatives, however, somehow ended up untouched. “In Pittsburgh, Stryker filed unharmed negatives away in boxes marked ‘K’–the kill file–making the Pittsburgh project one of the very few in Stryker’s long career for which researchers can view the entirety of the collection,” writes Wallace. “It’s in this kill file that we find some of Erwitt’s most compelling frames,” and insight into the development of his approach to photography. There are odd and absurd moments, such as a trio of men perched in a tree in Schenely Park, and a shot where the Greyhound logo’s dog seems to leap over a woman waiting for a taxi. Many images include children, at play or in more adult roles, holding dolls or selling newspapers. And many highlight Erwitt’s ability to evoke empathy for his diverse subjects. Writes Wallace, “Curious and purposeful, wandering and driven–Erwitt’s work in Pittsburgh, so early in his career, represents the very genesis of what we now recognize as his visual signature.”

Related Stories:
Pittsburgh Parking Lot Booths
Elliott Erwitt’s Regarding Women
Cooperative Effort: Photographers Ed Panar and Melissa Catanese Crowdsource a People’s History of Pittsburgh

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