Thirty years ago, envisioning Pittsburgh as much of an artist’s muse could seem very unlikely.
But look around now. Take a good look.
Or, better yet, take a look through the eyes of Brian Cohen.
“Pittsburgh is just full of stuff,” says Cohen, a freelance photographer whose fanciful perspectives of the natural and man-made elements of the Steel City comprise a striking exhibit at James Gallery, running now through April 17.
Cohen, whose riveting images have been shared on the Web-based journal Pop City since 2007, grew up in London, and lived in Binghamton, N.Y., for 13 years before deciding to make Pittsburgh his home.
“I had been living very happily in Binghamton, but it was time for a move,” he said.
Still, he and his wife had never considered relocating to Pittsburgh until they came to visit friends here for a weekend.
“Pittsburgh just blew us away,” Cohen said. “It’s a real city, but it’s small and manageable. And there is a thriving Jewish community, and a great Jewish school. We would not have moved here had there not been a Jewish school. That would have been a deal breaker.”
Cohen and his wife, Ilyssa Manspeizer, have four children, all of whom attend or have graduated from Community Day School in Squirrel Hill. Both raised as “traditional” Jews, Cohen and Manspeizer are active members of Beth Shalom Congregation.
Cohen discovered his love of photography in the mid 1980s in Israel, where he lived for two and a half years. When he returned to London, he attended the Royal College of Art, but took a break from photography when he moved to Binghamton and joined the faculty of Ithaca College, where he taught art history.
After moving to Pittsburgh, he commuted to Ithaca for a year, but was happy to give that up when the opportunity arose to do work for Pop City.
“Pittsburgh is as good a place as I can imagine to be a photographer,” Cohen said.
Besides his work as a photographer, Cohen also teaches courses in art and art history regularly at Chatham University.
The show at James Gallery is Cohen’s first Pittsburgh exhibit. While all of the works displayed have appeared as mastheads on Pop City, they are bolder now, having been enlarged to widths of 34 or 52 inches for the show. The shots are varied and arresting, ranging in subject from storefront windows, to buildings reflected in other buildings, to Buddhist monks at the G-20 Summit. Each work captures a different nook or cranny of Pittsburgh, and allows the viewer to experience the familiar in uncommon ways.
Having found his muse in Pittsburgh, as well as a Jewish community to which his family feels connected, Cohen says he is now rooted here.
“We picked up and left everything, and started from scratch,” Cohen said. “We’re not going anywhere. We love it here.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)