Hilary Robinson offers a smartphone-photo love letter to Pittsburgh. | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Hilary Robinson offers a smartphone-photo love letter to Pittsburgh.

This collection of urban still-lifes encounter Lawrenceville's photogenic strangeness.

Photo by Hilary Robinson
Photo by Hilary Robinson

Pittsburgh je t'aime, at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Gallery, is a collection of more than 100 small photographic prints by London-based art theorist and former Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts Dean Hilary Robinson. In her artist statement, Robinson writes that she used "different generations of iPhone" to capture scenes mainly in Lawrenceville on her "regular walks ...  between 36th Street and 48th Street."

This collection of urban still-lifes encounter Lawrenceville's photogenic strangeness where cement, plant life and humans clash. But as the title suggests, Pittsburgh je t'aime also reads like a pictorial love letter, as Robinson uses warm-blooded point-of-view angles and a devotion to detail. Humans are mostly absent, except in the stuff they leave behind — the helium-spent balloon, the deserted couch, the snuffed fire pit on a riverside cement slab, the mawkish graffiti. Robinson herself makes an occasional appearance, mostly in a series where she cradles small found objects in her hand: bizarre pieces of metal like tokens of industrial fallout; a cat whisker.

Given Robinson's palpable fondness for the city and knack for composition, the photos are charming, especially when spontaneous: birds lifting in a golden-hour sky bordered by our prized rustic landscape, or brilliant natural mishaps like snow caught in sapling branches, replicating the shapes of leaves long fallen.  

To its utter disadvantage, however, the smartphone as an artistic tool necessarily competes with "feed overload," a product of both the device's own ubiquity and the tendency to overshare online. This "eye of the smartphone" aesthetic has been hijacked as visual currency in social media, and its prevalance menaces this artwork, making it beg for an imaginative upper hand, even more so within a brick-and-mortar gallery.

Pittsburgh je t'aime traps me between social-media-induced anxiety that "everything is boring" and art that emanates good ol' comforting sincerity. Because unlike the attention-deficit woes of Instagram, a must-read is Robinson's printed and mounted artist statement (the largest piece in the show) recalling a childhood memory of her great-uncle Jesse, a gamekeeper who daily walked a 10-mile perimeter of the estate he tended. Robinson remembers these walks and Jesse's oral/visual mapping of the territory — an interaction that inspires this work. With this, Robinson has me longing for what's missing, and it's not the image. It's the story told, the human.