Historic Photos of Pittsburgh | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Historic Photos of Pittsburgh
By Miriam Meislik
Turner Publishing, 206 pp., $39.95


Are there any historic photos of Pittsburgh left to publish?

Before Miriam Meislik's Historic Photos of Pittsburgh hit my desk, I wasn't sure. With its industrial drama and striking topography, Pittsburgh has long been popular with photographers, and there's a brisk trade in coffee-table books featuring their images. My own bookcase, for example, includes work by artists like Luke Swank, Teenie Harris and Mark Perrott -- not to mention compendiums like Pittsburgh Revealed, Witness to the Fifties, and not one but two books titled Pittsburgh: Then and Now.

Yet despite the crowded field, Meislik, who curates photos and other media for the University of Pittsburgh's Archives Service Center, has found a wider lens through which to view the city.

Any book of historic photos can show you the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936; Meislik's book is the rare collection that presents footage from the flood of 1913. Any Pirates fan can recall the image of Bill Mazeroski rounding the bases in the 1960 World Series ... Historic Photos shows us Pirate Maury Wills teaching kids at a baseball clinic. This book isn't so much about History as it is about the past -- the city as people experienced it every day.

And although the book's cover features a massive steel ingot, the pages inside spend little time on Pittsburgh's industrial past. "We have a whole collection here dedicated to steel, but that's what people already think about Pittsburgh," Meislik says. "I wanted them to get another view."

So with a few exceptions -- like a shot of a riverboat going up in flames -- most of these photos aren't of dramatic events, but of the moments between. Streetscapes, trolleys, roadcrews at work ... these dominate the book, much as they dominated daily life.

If that sounds prosaic or dull, it's not. As with books like Pittsburgh: Then and Now, these photos can transform places you take for granted; a building you see every day disappears, replaced by one you never knew about. Meislik says she wanted to show Pittsburgh's constant evolution, which the book charts in a series of chronological chapters. But what's more uncanny is how familiar the photos are. For me, the most jarring surprise was seeing a South Side alleyway I once lived along -- because it seemingly hasn't changed in decades.

And however much I decry the UPMC logo being installed atop the city skyline, I derive a strange delight from seeing ads from yesteryear. Who would object to modern electronic billboards if they flashed ads for, say, Cruikshank's Apple Butter? And who wouldn't want to shop at "Second-Story Morry's," or the "Stag Pants Store"?

That said, you'd be hard-pressed to call some of these photos artful: Many images that fill Pitt's archives, and thus the book, were taken by amateurs. Others were shot by city employees to document public-works projects. "Things we think are important were often incidental when the photo was shot," says Meislik, who acknowledges her own choices can be idiosyncratic: She says a photo showing "good Gulf gas" on sale for 26.9 cents/gallon, for example, is "a tribute to gas prices of yesteryear."

Inevitably, the photos here lack the strong focus of work by Swank or Harris. They also lack the epic sweep of pictures recounting Pittsburgh's saga of industrialization, collapse and renewal. But Historic Photos is a modest attempt to add perspectives those other narratives crop out. (One of the few steel industry pics, in fact, is of a female employee, toiling in the Homestead Works during World War II.)

Other photography books ask "What did Pittsburgh mean?" But for enthusiasts, Historic Photos raises a question just as useful: What was Pittsburgh like?


Miriam Meislik will hold a Historic Photos of Pittsburgh book signing June 13 from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Bradley's Book Attic at Macy's, Downtown.

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