From 1978 to 1982, Pittsburgh native David Aschkenas spent his days photographing the Steel City. That was before the digital age, when a photographer would set up his camera, complete with bellows on a tripod and duck under a black cloth. Aschkenas would shoot one piece of film at a time and, on a good day, would get about a half-dozen photos.
In 1980, Aschkenas and two friends applied for and received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to photograph Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods. The team took hundreds of photos but never showed them. Many were never even printed.
More than 35 years later, Aschkenas pulled 450 black-and-white negatives out of storage and made new digital prints, a veritable treasure trove of Pittsburgh’s past, in which the wonders of the everyday suddenly take on new life through the lens of nostalgia. A collection of those photos is now being displayed in an exhibition called “Remembering Pittsburgh” at Lantern Gallery, 600 Liberty Ave., through May 21.
The show, which is free and open to the public, launches with a reception on April 7 from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Prints of the photographs exhibited at “Remembering Pittsburgh” measuring 20 inches by 24 inches will be offered for sale at $600 each.
“I hadn’t seen this work in 30 years,” Aschkenas said in an interview. “But I kept decent records. Now I have this big body of work of how Pittsburgh used to look. I don’t remember taking two-thirds of them, and I never printed them. They were like totally brand new to me.”
There are 62 photographs in the show, many of landmarks that no longer exist, as Aschkenas focuses on “places that have changed a lot,” such as Lawrenceville, East Liberty, Bloomfield, Squirrel Hill, Swissvale and downtown.
Longtime Pittsburghers will welcome the chance to remember sites grand and humble, ranging from the Civic Arena to Saul Kronzek’s butcher shop. Newer arrivals to the city will appreciate a glimpse into what was here before they were.
“A wonderfully subtle photographer, David has created images here that are gritty, but hardly grotesque; neither grab nor glory shots,” wrote Pittsburgher Abby Mendelson in an introduction to the exhibit. “There is nothing obvious, in life or landscape, no grimaces (as Ansel Adams dismissed candid portraiture). While some who photograph Pittsburgh seem duty bound to create the extraordinary, David, instead, reveals — and revels in — the poetry of ordinary life. Things we’ve often seen but have frequently overlooked, things that create a city, the stark, stripped-down poetry of urban spaces. A Raymond Carver story of endless hurts and profane excess; a William Carlos Williams poem scratched out on a prescription pad.”
Aschkenas was born and raised in Highland Park and now lives down the street from the house where he grew up. His home bursts with colorful outsider art, sculpture and paintings by untrained artists that he has collected over the years. The décor is a nod to the photographer’s appreciation for the commonplace, simultaneously unpolished and exquisite.
His parents moved from New York City to Pittsburgh in 1950, a year before he was born, so that his father could partner with his uncle Max Goldsmith in a bar in the Hill District, which at the time was a Jewish neighborhood.
After attending Penn State, where he majored in film, Aschkenas moved to Boston for a brief time. While in Boston, Aschkenas had the opportunity to see a friend develop photos in a dark room, and “a light bulb went off,” he said.
That’s when he realized he had more of an interest in the immediate gratification of taking a photo and developing it the same day than spending years creating a film.
In 1973, Aschkenas moved back to Pittsburgh and began reading about photography. He soon “became consumed” with the field. After teaching at Pittsburgh Filmmakers for about five years, Aschkenas started doing freelance work and has been earning a living at it since 1982.
The photographer produced a book about Rodef Shalom Congregation’s synagogue in Oakland several years ago and has a huge body of work on historic synagogues in Europe. In 2014, he showed the photos he took of synagogues in Prague and Budapest at the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.