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'Witness To The Fifties: The Pittsburgh Photographic Library 1950-1953' Edited by Constance B. Schulz and Steven W. Plattner. Text by Clarke Thomas

Pittsburgh: Reliving the past

Sunday, October 17, 1999

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

 
 

Witness To The Fifties: The Pittsburgh Photographic Library 1950-1953

By Edited by Constance B. Schulz and Steven W. Plattner. Text by Clarke Thomas

University of Pittsburgh Press
$37.50

   
 

A book of such compelling photographs should require very few words, but it’s hard not to want to tell the story of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, Pittsburgh in the 1950s and the long effort to publish this book.

I should quickly dispense with the often-told tale of how the city remade itself after World War II, except to observe that Mayor Tom Murphy’s grandiose Fifth-Forbes project is a grandchild of that mammoth effort.

Like his predecessor, David L. Lawrence, Murphy proposes to eradicate what’s left of “Old Pittsburgh” and replace it with shiny, new structures with no history. Unlike those urban renewal experts of the 1950s, however, Murphy does propose to salvage a few facades.

The original visionaries did, in their own way, try to preserve pre-Renaissance Pittsburgh on film, creating the short-lived photographic library and the images that have inspired this book.

Thanks to the care and respect shown those photos by Charlee Brodsky, we were given a rare look at the library’s marvelous work when she curated the 1988 exhibition “Roy Stryker’s Pittsburgh Photographic Portrait” at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Brodsky also drew our attention to the long-neglected Stryker, a onetime economics professor who became the country’s leading proponent of documentary photography.

Starting in the Roosevelt administration, Stryker supervised a team of photographers who chronicled the farm crisis of the Depression. He then moved to Standard Oil during World War II to produce a photo history of the oil industry.

The Allegheny Conference brought him here in 1950 and gave him a list of duties, from recording the city before the Renaissance to producing positive images of the “Renaissance City” for nationwide consumption.

Using foundation funding, Stryker sent such artists as Clyde Hare, Esther Bubley, James Blair, Harold Corsini, Sol Libsohn and Richard Saunders into the streets of a city of 700,000, a city trying to rid itself of the dirt and grime and poverty of both the Depression and World War II.

The project effectively ended in 1953.

“Witness to the Fifties” tells the history of Stryker’s efforts and places them in historical context. The real story of this book, though, is in the pictures themselves, 103 of them, drawn from a storehouse of more than 18,000 negatives. Apparently 5,000 or so have been lost.

These photos show a vanished world called Pittsburgh, a place unrecognizable to most of us today. Looking at these wonderfully composed images of crooked streets, raggedly dressed children, threadbare homes, sprawling mills and the sunlight and shadows of a once-crowded Downtown, I was struck again and again at the diverse and fascinating character that shines through.

And, again, I looked into the milky eyes of a blind man who played the accordion around the Diamond Market, an image that always scared me when I was 6 or so. (But the market was always a scary place, with its windows displaying freshly dressed rabbits on a bed of ice chips.)

“Witness to the Fifties” is for me, and will be for many others, a personal tour of our past. This is a finely made and sensitively composed book and a major contribution to Pittsburgh history by the Pitt Press.

Thanks to Steven Plattner, a longtime student of Stryker’s career, and Constance Schulz, director of the Public History Program at the University of South Carolina, as well as the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Howard Heinz Endowment, the press was finally able to complete this valuable project.

(Plattner was working on this book 11 years ago at the time of Brodsky’s show and thought it would be published in 1989.)

Providing a solid context for the photos is Clarke Thomas, longtime observer of the city from his years as a writer at the Post-Gazette.

Drawing heavily on interviews and newspaper accounts, Thomas sketches those long-ago days with a broad history chronicling the political and social conditions of the time. Of particular interest is Thomas’ account of how the city battled property owners in the Point district who resisted the efforts to remove their thriving businesses and offices through eminent domain.

The battle was ultimately taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, which obviously sided with the city. From Pittsburgh Wool Co. to the shops on Fifth and Forbes avenues scheduled for removal, it’s a still an issue.

Schulz provides the story of Stryker and the library in a introduction full of detail but dry academic prose. Oddly, in a book of photos, there’s none of Stryker.

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