Photographer's city

It was a cold, wet, gray March weekend when we first came to Pittsburgh. I had already been interviewed for a job and an offer had been made. We came to look at housing, get a feel for the city . . . and make the big decision. Within 24 hours my wife and I were both in tears, terribly discouraged, and on our way back to North Carolina.

There were so many people, such terrible traffic; there was so much litter and dilapidation. For many years my dreams had been focused on the mountain West where, as a friend of mine would have it, every vista is run-of-the-mill spectacular. How could I trade that dream for this monumentally ugly reality?

My profession as a research scientist, a scientific photographer, involves me every day in the search for the specific among the general. I am constantly looking for patterns where no patterns are apparent, for exceptions to rules only vaguely written.

If, for example, we need to know why a certain boiler component failed, we have to examine the parts to see in what way they no longer conform to the way they were made. Perhaps they have been in service for 10 years; corrosion and wear have obscured their original condition. We use powerful electron microscopes to take apart the materials, discover changes in chemistry or material characteristics. And images are always a major goal: We have to tell a story, and illustrations always make the story more convincing.

It's easy just to take micrographs. The trick is to take the right ones, which show in a logical way what went wrong, or how the process works, or how to improve the product.

It developed that that March weekend was not the deciding factor, and soon I had accepted the job and moved to Pittsburgh - in spite of first impressions. The job proved interesting and challenging. Perhaps even more important, though, have been the people of the city. I'll never forget a chance conversation on the phone with a woman I never met. She said to me, ''You'll like Pittsburgh!'' And she's right.

Opportunities have come up repeatedly involving me with the city. Early in my stay I was asked to provide illustrations for a report by the city government. In a period of five days more than 400 photographs were taken.

During that assignment I was challenged to find good things about the city, things of which its people are proud. And find them I did. Little things, such as a hand-lettered notice on the wall of a wholesale fish market in the produce district: ''Do your job with dignity. Bring honor to yourself and your company'' - signed by the owner. Big things, like the spectacular view from Mt. Washington up and down the ''Three Rivers,'' wrapping around the city's skyscraper core.

Patterns began to emerge from the previously chaotic, patterns of light that pleased the eye. Night became a special time for me as moon and artificial lights combined to change the city's face. I found that driving down streets that had previously irritated me because of what I saw as squalor now attracted me by the fine architectural detail. And I now saw the many owners working to bring back their neighborhoods to pleasing functionality.

The relationship of the land forms and the buildings to the sky began to be important as my eye sought opportunity for striking images. I became sensitive to the activities of the people as they took advantage of the city's flowing interests.

And with this budding response to my surroundings, the challenges of my job began to blend with the after-hours excitement in capturing the spirit of this amazing city in black and white images. The same sense of discovery, of selecting the particular from amid the general, applies in each pursuit.

''You'll like this city!'' Yes, she was certainly right.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Photographer's city
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today