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Photographic memory

Installation view.

The Baron family Croatian tamburitza band, Dormont, 1930.

Installation view.

What’s a People’s History of Pittsburgh? It’s whatever the people of Pittsburgh want it to be. The online gallery, hosted by the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hillman Photography Initiative, includes photos of a Braddock family’s Croatian tamburitza band, circa 1930; Northgate High School’s 1994 senior prom; and more than one picture of recent zombie runs.
 
“We’re looking for pictures that have personal, meaningful significance to the people that submit them,” says Melissa Catanese, an artist in residence at the Sandbox, located in the Coatroom Gallery on the ground floor of the museum. “We’re very open; it’s Pittsburgh and the surrounding metropolitan area. We’re not creating boundaries.”
 
Pictures can be scanned and submitted to the project website, www.nowseethis.org/peopleshistory. Or they can be scanned at the Sandbox during regular museum hours. But to make it even easier for people to join in, the Hillman Photography Initiative is holding the first of three Scanning Days on Thurs., May 22 from 10AM to 8PM. Visitors can stop by the Sandbox with the pictures that mean Pittsburgh to them. They’ll be scanned, captioned, and uploaded to the site. Everyone who participates receives free museum admission that day.
 
The Hillman Photography Initiative
The People’s History of Pittsburgh and the Sandbox are two of several projects conceived by the Hillman Photography Initiative, which is supported by grants from the William T. Hillman and Henry L. Hillman Foundations. The initiative intends to explore the future of photography as art, in an era when people create and see thousands of images a day.
 
“There’s a paradigm shift,” says Divya Rao Heffley, program manager with the Initiative. “Now almost everyone has a high-resolution (smartphone) camera in their pockets.”
 
As part of the project, Heffley and Tina Kukielski, a Carnegie curator, brought together artists, professors and photography professionals in 2013 to discuss how best to explore the current state of photographic art. They chose to concentrate on the life cycle of an image, from creation to transmission, consumption, storage, loss and re-emergence.  From that concept emerged four facets:
 
The Invisible Photograph, a five-part online documentary series about hidden images, including those that are stashed away, degraded by time, or forgotten. Part I tells the story of the Corbis archive, a collection of millions of historic images stored securely underground in a Butler County mine.
 
This Picture, a website which features a different image each month, and asks the question: what do you see? Commenting via photo, video, and/or text is encouraged. (This month’s image, an enigmatic one of Marilyn Monroe and her frequent photographer, Eve Arnold, has sparked varied reactions.) Orphaned Images, planned for Fall 2014, a timely look at the appropriation, manipulation and dissemination of online images.
 
The Sandbox is the fourth part of the initiative. Subtitled “At Play With the Photobook,” the Sandbox is a reading room, bookstore, library and event space. Catanese and her fellow artist in residence, Ed Panar, are co-founders of Spaces Corners, a local photobook shop. In an age of digital photography and unlimited online images, Catanese believes there will always be a place for photography books.
 
“They’re physical objects,” she says. “People still love to hold something and look through it.”
 
The Sandbox has an array of contemporary art photography books; some are self-produced and some are products of major publishers. Visitors are invited to browse the shelves, page through an interesting collection and purchase their favorites.
 
Cataloguing Pittsburgh’s photographic history
Catanese and Panar conceived of the People’s History of Pittsburgh as part of the Sandbox. “This is something we’ve been wanting to pursue for quite some time, but we didn’t have the resources,” Catanese says. “Our idea is to create a collective photo album based on a shared personal experience.”
 
The artists came to Pittsburgh via New York and, in Catanese’s words, “fell in love with the geography and beauty of the place, with its small town charm in a bigger city. There’s a lot of pride here.”
 
So far, some of the pictures submitted are “surprises,” Catanese says, noting one of a smiling young woman standing next to a car with a smashed front end. But that’s fine:
“We’re looking for ones that tell stories,” she says, adding that the Halloween costumes pictures are among her favorites.
 
Catanese and Panar are on hand Wed. through Sat. to engage visitors, as well as to assist with scanning and cataloguing the People’s History submissions. (Other times, museum staffers are on hand to assist.) Some recent submissions are framed and placed on shelves in the Sandbox. Others are projected on a gallery wall.
 
In addition to May 22, two more Scanning Days are set for June 26 and July 24. Photo submissions will be accepted at the Sandbox through July 28, when the exhibit closes. Pictures can still be uploaded at the People’s History website over the next year or so, though an exact deadline has not been established. At that point, Catanese and Panar will select images to include in a photo book of the project.
 
Several events are planned for the Sandbox over the summer. The next one, set for June 7, features photographer and writer Nicholas Muellner sharing images and narratives from his travels around Pittsburgh. On June 21, Kalev Erickson, an editor at the London-based Archive of Modern Conflict, will speak on the intersection of photobooks and archives. More information about these and other events can be found at http://www.cmoa.or
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