Filed under: Art Gallery | Tags: coraopolis, impossible project, instant film, polaroid week 2015, roots
This is the place where I’d bike along the tree-lined street to escape our stifling hot apartment. This is the place where Sherry’s Drugs sold fountain malts, where I’d buy pantyhose at Nola’s to match my color guard uniform. This is the place that housed a café where my friends and I scraped together our first-job cash to order grilled cheeses. This is where I asked a hairdresser to make me look like Louise Brooks. Where I’d buy daisies for my mother, where I’d peek through the windows of revolving stores, each struggling to keep pace with a changing world. This is the place where I ate my first violet pastilles, tiny sugar-coated aniseed in a floral tin imported from France. They taste like sweet, cheap perfume, there isn’t any other way to describe it; I became hooked. They made me want to try the rose-flavored ones, then a candy flecked with hot pepper. They gave me a taste of life outside that small river town – one was never enough. This is the place where I sat on a bench planning my first train trip alone, where my life as an artist began.
Filed under: Art Gallery, Pennsylvania | Tags: east liberty, impossible project, instant film, polaroid week 2015
Pittsburgh is growing. It’s surreal to live here your entire life and watch outsiders’ faces over the years turn from disgust to wide-eyed enthusiasm – a rust-belt city darling gracing the Internet pages of social media. We have good food, pretty hilltop views, cheap real estate. We are proof that yes, you can take a pig from the mud and make it clean. And that’s always the dilemma of the growing city: happiness at improvement, confusion – anger – that with improvement, comes rising prices, communities being pushed out of their homes – becomes a place like every other place. So amidst the construction (which has happened since 1973, in what historians call the “reinvention” era), I look for traces of old Pittsburgh to make sure nobody forgets it: empty churches, lawns-turned-overgrown fields. Wooden mill homes that survived over a hundred winters.
Filed under: Pennsylvania | Tags: impossible project, instant film, neville island, polaroid week 2015
People around the Pittsburgh region have their theories about Neville Island, the largest inhabited island in the Ohio River: it’s off-limits to outsiders, a thruway for truckers, crowded with factories – nobody really lives there. In the 80s, crossing the Coraopolis Bridge to the island, you’d be warned: Poison! Do Not Enter! (I remember a skull and crossbones painted on that sign, but maybe I watched too many cartoons as a kid.) Chemical companies treated a corner of the former farmland turned shipyard as a dumping ground. It took years, but they finally cleaned up their act. Now an ice rink inhabits the area once dubbed “poison park,” and across the street is a tropical island-themed bar complete with fake palms and sand (island – get it?). My sister lives on the Island, so Jeff and I explore it often. I tell him stories about Wind Chimes truck stop and the amazing Chinese-American neon sign that made me want to go there because I imagined it would be like stepping into 1955. All those afternoons at the Rollerdrome next door, learning to skate backwards, and playing Pac-Man in its seedy little café that hasn’t changed decor since the Carter era. Grid-patterned streets dotted with tiny cottages boasting pink flamingos and the American flag on lawns cut clean and bright.
Filed under: Art Gallery | Tags: impossible project, polaroid week 2015, western pennsylvania
Lately, I’ve felt at ease with photography in ways I haven’t before. I’ve learned not only to trust myself – in operating cameras, finding subjects – but to trust the world around me, knowing it will offer something worth capturing. When the photo bug bites, Gem Way delivers – the dirty broken little alleyway behind our house. I’ve documented it for almost 10 years, and it never fails to show me something I overlooked: tiny berries climbing a chain link fence, wild daisies curling around wooden chair legs – the way the light shines through our living room window at sunrise and down. It is comforting and familiar. It is home. It gives me the courage to trek into unknown photographic territory and take risks. Themes emerge: city and country; woman and child; darkness and light; certainty and mystery.
Filed under: Art Gallery | Tags: coraopolis, impossible project, loss, memory, polaroid week 2015, slr680
During fall Polaroid week, I chose images that are personal to me, rooted in nostalgia that I’ve been – to move forward, it helps for me to look back, and somehow, through art, it comes full circle. After sharing stories with a childhood friend about our old neighborhood, I visited to capture it on film. It had been almost five years since I was back on Broadway [real street name], but my heart did a little leap when I spotted it: On the sidewalk by the porch, my mother had traced her name in the cement. I photographed it shortly after she died – I had forgotten it was there, and to find it was a great surprise. I’ve thought of it as a memorial, a place I could go when I felt the need to see her. I feared time took hold and it disappeared, but there it was, her name standing out among the cracks in the pavement. So Jeff and I sat on the sidewalk, leaning against the giant white house converted into apartments (my mum, sister and me on the first floor, an exotic dancer and her daughter, on the second), swapping memories. The tiny cottage owned by the couple with the Doberman that chased kids on their bikes, now bulldozed. My friend Amber’s backyard – in full bloom, and comforting to see the wooden shed still standing 30 years later. Across the street, our neighbor Julia’s house is converting to a storefront, its previous incarnation years before the ’80s when we were kids using t-shirts as makeshift baskets to carry tomatoes from her garden to my mother – gifts Julia offered when she couldn’t find the English words to tell us that if we needed anything, we knew where to find her.
Filed under: Art Gallery | Tags: 12x12 project, impossible project, pittsburgh, polaroid spectra
I’ve had this dream of taking photos before the city wakes, and this month’s 12×12 photo challenge gave me that opportunity: Take what you believe will be the final series of photographs before you die (Nick Brandt). I admit, the topic kind of scared the shit out of me, despite my fascination with death culture, and anything dark, strange, creepy, or curiously morbid. Taking the photos felt like jinxing myself, as if I’d summon our inevitable fate a littler sooner than anticipated. Also, it ups the ante to make the “last” photos really, really good photos. It made me want to go big, do something wild and out of the ordinary, which is most likely the point: I should do something different (no self-portraits!).
Instead of thinking about the photos, I thought about all the things I put off doing and finally decided to do. I came across notes I had written in my journal – lists, really, of places around the city where I’ve meant to take pictures. And on a cold, gloomy (then later, sunny) Sunday morning (in short: unpredictable), Polaroid Spectra in hand, Jeff and I drove to each point so I could capture those tiny corners of Pittsburgh. We went downtown to Liberty Avenue because all the times I sat waiting for him to get off work, I’d stare at the expanse of buildings on Liberty and think how they were so faded and crumbling and lovely, like a painting, that I had to get them on instant film; or on the Southside Slopes, a house I’ve seen hanging on the edge of S. 18th Street being swallowed by ivy, and I marveled over its survival through decades.
These aren’t statement photos, or conceptual, or typically Pittsburgh or anything different from what I’ve done before, but rather, a bookend to what I have done for years: sending love letters to my city – a dark, strange, and (sometimes) curiously morbid little town that defines me in ways that I find hard to put into words.
Filed under: Art Gallery | Tags: found photography, nowseethis.org, spaces corners
I think my mother would be surprised (and secretly pleased) to see a photo of her with her friends published in A People’s History of Pittsburgh: Volume One. As I’ve written in various blog posts, she hid her photos away for so many years, even she may have forgotten all the memories packed away in those boxes. The book is part of the Now See This project through Hillman Photography Initiative, and it’s a great collection of vernacular photography edited in the context of Pittsburgh and its many facets by Melissa Catanese and Ed Panar. Click here to see more of the project and to submit your family photos.