Witness to the Fifties is an intimate, engrossing, often moving portrait of Pittsburgh in the waning years of its industrial glory. These images, shot by some of America's most talented documentary photographers, reveal a city that existed not so long ago, but one that seems poignantly distant from the vantage point of the computer age.
Initially commissioned to record the progress of Pittsburgh’s Renaissance I, these unforgettable black-and-white photographs of Roy Stryker’s Pittsburgh Photographic Library (PPL) capture the city in a state of flux. They reveal a union of opposites—the suited wonderment of the downtown businessman with the easy grace and competence of a shirtless construction worker balanced high over his head; the anonymity and isolation of planned housing with the belief in expansion and renewal; the energy and excitement of a city on the move with the traditions of the established elite; the juxtaposition between the growing optimism about the ability of technology to improve our lives; and the traditional steel and other heavy smokestack industries that still dominated the region. The Renaissance was seen as a way for Pittsburgh to keep abreast of modern urban life and to preserve its economic position, but the rapid development of a white suburban middle class was sapping the very essence of the personalized downtown neighborhoods. These photographers have captured the convergence of destruction and rejuvenation that is the essence of an urban renaissance—all the anxiety and hope of the decade is reflected in these poignant photographs. Constance Schulz’s fascinating essay on the story of the PPL, in order to present a full picture of the political and civic goals, achievements, and failings of the project, provides a thorough discussion of the background of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library, putting into perspective the Allegheny Conference’s purpose for initiating the PPL, Roy Stryker’s own vision and work, as well as those of the photographers who worked for Stryker on the project, and the politics that undermined the full implementation of it. Clark M. Thomas’s accompanying narrative offers an eclectic range of facts and fascinating bits of the city’s history and neighborhood lore, as well as noting important political and economic episodes. It also provides a glimpse into the often underrepresented lives of minorities and women in the region’s development. Anyone moved by the incredible social upheaval and expansion that occurred in cities across the nation in the 1950s following years of depression and war will want to have this collection.
An extraordinary book of unforgettable images.
As Schulz explains in a fine introductory essay, the Pittsburgh Photographic Library Project was designed to promote the city's midcentury urban renewal initiative, in part to rid Pittsburgh of its 'smoky past' by giving residents and other Americans a new vision of the modern city . . . THe 104 beautifully reproduced visual images are interwoven with journalist Clarke M. Thomas's local history narrative, a rich cultural text that provides a genuine sense of political and social upheaval in a complex evolving city in the early 1950's.
Readers will enjoy the photographs because they represent memorable times and places. The discussion of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library as a political and civic project is fascinating. This book is a great contribution to Pittsburgh history and photographic history.
The beautifully reproduced visual images are interwoven with journalist Clarke M. Thomas's local history narrative, a rich cultural text that provides a genuine sense of political and social upheaval in a complex evolving city in the early 1950s.
The PPL's unforgettable black-and-white photographs reveal a union of opposites—the paired wonderment of a downtown businessman with the easy grace of a shirtless construction worker balancing high above the city streets, and the anonymity and isolation of planned housing with the belief in expansion and renewal.
These photographs 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 struch again and again at the diverse and fascinating character that shines through. . . . This is a finely made and sensitively composed book and a major contribution to Pittsburgh history.
Constance B. Schulz, professor of history and director of the Public History Program at the University of South Carolina, is author and editor of several works on documentary photography, most recently, Bust to Boom: Documentary Photographs of Kansas, 1936–1949.