Category: Photography

  • The Best Pictures of 2023

    Coffey Way

    Coffey Way in downtown Pittsburgh. This is not only the best picture of the year, but possibly the best one old Pa Pitt has ever published. He took a number of photographs from more or less this same angle, but when the barely visible figures in dark clothing wandered into the frame, he knew this would be the one.

    If old Pa Pitt were at all concerned about his reputation as an artist, he would publish about one picture a week, if that many. Art is not his primary purpose here, however. His aim is to document the treasures that surround us, and he is willing to accept second-rate pictures if they show the object reasonably well. Sometimes, however, he does try to aim a little higher than that. These are some of his favorite pictures from the past year, not because of what they depict, but purely as photographic compositions.

    Childs-Callery-Casey-Falk House

    The Childes-Callery-Casey-Falk House, now the Chancellor’s Residence for the University of Pittsburgh. It was designed by Peabody & Stearns and built in 1897. This was a perfect late-fall day, and in spite of the temptation to turn up the saturation to bring out the colors of the leaves, the picture seemed to work best when it was a little less colorful and just slightly melancholy.

    St. Peter’s Church at night

    St. Peter’s Church on the North Side. For this picture, Father Pitt actually hauled a tripod down to the North Side. He does not usually put that much effort into anything, so this one gets on the list just because it was extra work.

    Dandelion seeds

    Dandelion seeds.

    Onion domes on Holy Virgin Church

    The onion domes on Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, lightly dusted with snow. It took a fair amount of fiddling to get the domes and the crosses and the subtle clouds behind them all at the right shades.

    Entrance to the Kinder Building

    The entrance to the Kinder Building in Allegheny West. At night the Beaux-Arts architecture takes on just the right air of mystery; we expect to see Humphrey Bogart emerge and be accosted by a shadowy figure in a trench coat.

    Fall in the cemetery

    Fall in the Union Dale Cemetery.

    Bridges on the Monongahela

    Bridges on the Monongahela. Taken from the south shore, this picture seems to tell the story of an urbanized river.

    Myosotis laxa

    Myosotis laxa, the Lesser Forget-Me-Not.

    Urn with resting fawn

    Urn with resting fawn, Allegheny Cemetery.

    The Peoples Building in McKeesport

    The Peoples Building, McKeesport. Sometimes Father Pitt must admit that the weather has more to do with making a good picture than the skill of the photographer. In this case, he can take some credit for using a red filter to bring out the contrast between sky and clouds, but otherwise it was just a perfect day.

    Penstemon digitalis

    Penstemon digitalis, the Foxglove Beardtongue. This is a good picture of a flower taken under unfavorable conditions: bright sunlight wipes out details and makes it hard to get good botanical pictures. One solution is the one adopted in this picture, which is to have the sun shining through rather than on the flowers.

    St. Fracnis Xavier Church

    The entrance to St. Francis Xavier Church in Brighton Heights, designed by William P. Hutchins. This picture is made from a stack of three photographs at different exposures.

    The Trimont

    The Trimont (designed by Lou Astorino), seen in silhouette. It is not old Pa Pitt’s favorite building in the city, but certain views have dramatic photographic possibilities.

    Streetcar and flag

    A very patriotic streetcar picture from Beechview.

    Branches against sunset

    Winter branches against sunset clouds.

    Streetcar and rainbow

    What’s at the end of the rainbow? A streetcar, of course.

  • Every Day in 2022

    Throughout the year 2022, old Pa Pitt managed to put up at least one new article every day. To celebrate the changing of the years, here are twelve of his favorite pictures from last year, one for each month:

    January

    Witch hazel

    A vase of witch hazel.

    February

    Church of the Ascension

    Church of the Ascension, Shadyside.

    March

    Crocuses in the Rain

    Crocuses in the rain.

    April

    Fox Squirrel

    Fox squirrel.

    May

    Heinz Chapel

    Interior of Heinz Chapel.

    June

    Mammatus clouds

    Mammatus clouds at sunset.

    July

    Spotted Lanternfly nymph

    Spotted Lanternfly nymph.

    August

    Storm clouds behind spire of Third Presbyterian

    Retreating storm clouds behind the spire of Third Presbyterian Church, Shadyside.

    September

    Atlas on the Kaufmann’s Clock

    Atlas on the Kaufmann’s Clock.

    October

    Chimney pots

    Chimney pots on the South Side.

    November

    November skyline

    The skyline of downtown with November leaves.

    December

    Mellon Institute at Twilight

    The colossal columns of the Mellon Institute illuminated from within at twilight.

  • A Walk on the South Side with a Black-and-White Camera

    Corner of 16th and Sarah Streets
    Corner of 16th and Sarah Streets.

    It was not really a black-and-white camera; it was old Pa Pitt’s nineteen-year-old Samsung Digimax V4, a strange beast that was made for photography enthusiasts who wanted something that would fit in the pocket but still had most of the options of a sophisticated enthusiast’s camera. Father Pitt has set the user options to black-and-white. There is no good reason for doing so: obviously the camera collects color data and throws the colors away, and the colors could just as well be thrown away in software after returning from the expedition. But knowing that the picture must be black and white forces one to think in terms of forms rather than colors. So here are half a dozen pictures from a walk through the South Side Flats.

    Building on 17th Street
    Building on 17th Street, probably from the 1920s.
    Entrance to St. Adalbert’s
    The entrance to St. Adalbert’s Church.
    St. Adalbert’s Rectory
    St. Adalbert’s rectory.
    Rowhouses
    Rowhouses on Sarah Street.
    Front steps
    Front steps.
  • PittsburghCemeteries.com and FloraPittsburghensis.com

    Since these two sites see nearly as many visits as Father Pitt’s main site here, they deserve their own domain names. They have therefore moved to a snappy new server and been given a complete redesign—with, of course, a black-and-gold site logo for each to make sure you know where you are. The old addresses will continue to work indefinitely, but new content will appear at these new domains:

    https://pittsburghcemeteries.com/

    https://florapittsburghensis.com/

    The new server will allow us to offer some features not available before—notably an alphabetical index for each site.

  • The Civic Arena

    Civic Arena

    It was already called the “Mellon Arena” by this time, which old Pa Pitt always thought was a perfect parable of what was happening to American public life at the end of the twentieth century: what was built by the people, and named for the people, was handed over to a big corporation. Most Pittsburghers don’t remember that this was actually built as the Civic Auditorium, a new home for the Civic Light Opera. Sports were secondary in the original plans.

    The Civic Arena was never beautiful in Father Pitt’s eyes, but it was impressive. The huge retractable dome—the world’s first—looked like an alien spacecraft that had landed on the Lower Hill, demolishing all the houses and business and so forth, as alien spacecraft tend to do when they land, because apparently space aliens are jerks.

    Huge retractable domes turn out to be a nightmare to maintain, and the dome stopped retracting several years before the Arena was abandoned.

    Father Pitt will now take a moment to praise the little camera that took these pictures in May of 2000. It was a Smena 8M from the legendary Soviet Lomo camera works, a cheap plastic box with a very good lens. There was nothing automatic about it; it had manual adjustments for shutter speed, aperture, and focus, and countless great Russian photographers learned the basics on cheap but capable cameras like these. Father Pitt was not a great fan of the Soviet Union, but he has always had a soft spot for Soviet cameras.

    Mellon Arena
  • Hawking Conspiracies on the South Side, 2000

    Larouche supporter on the South Side

    Father Pitt does not normally indulge in what they call “street photography,” but back in March of 2000 this scene seemed to invite a picture, and Pa Pitt’s faithful Argus C3 was in his hand.

    Just think of all the things you will have to explain to your children or grandchildren (if available) about this picture. You will have to explain who Lyndon Larouche was, and that conspiracy theories like his were not part of mainstream American politics in those days. You will have to explain that this man is hawking things called newspapers, which were sort of like long-form Twitter. You will have to explain that those things on steel posts (the nearest one has been decapitated, which you will try to avoid explaining) were individualized parking kiosks, one for each parked car, which sounds like such a brilliant idea that it must be about time for a revival. You may even, if you are feeling brave, end up explaining the idea of creating photographs with light-sensitive chemicals.

  • 1st Ave Lofts

    1st Ave Lofts (Graphic Arts Building)

    A dwarf skyscraper with the regulation base-shaft-cap formula, this elegantly simple commercial building was designed by Joseph F. Kuntz and finished in 1907. It used to be known as the Graphic Arts Building before it was turned into luxury apartments. Soon every building downtown will be luxury apartments, and all the commercial offices will have to move to the suburbs.

  • West Penn Building

    West Penn Building

    Charles Bickel designed this small skyscraper at First Avenue and Wood Street, which was finished in 1907. It’s a perfect demonstration of the base-shaft-cap form of an early skyscraper. In fact we can use this building as a textbook in our short course on how to read a Beaux-Arts skyscraper. The two-storey base contains the public aspects of the building—retail stores, public offices, and so on. The shaft is the main body of the building, a repeated pattern of windows and wall. The cap gives the building a presentable top, since a gentleman would not appear outdoors without his hat. Note also the floor just above the base outlined with a prominent border. That is the bosses’ floor, where the managers and other important people have their offices. “Form follows function,” as Louis Sullivan said; and in this case the form gives concrete shape to a social reality. You have now completed our course, and may award yourself a certificate.

    West Penn Building
  • Fun with a Jeweler’s Loupe

    Claytonia virginica

    A cell-phone camera has a very small lens. This can be a liability, but in some cases it can be an advantage. For example, the lens on a cheap phone is small enough to take pictures through a jeweler’s loupe. Above, flowers of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), with the edge of the loupe left in the picture as a kind of visual statement of the theme of this article. Actually, it’s easy to put the lens right in the middle of the loupe and not see the edges at all. Here are some of the other things you can see with a loupe and a cheap little cell-phone camera:

    Lichen

    Lichen growing on a twig.

    Moss

    Moss on a log.

    Chickweed

    Chickweed (Stellaria media). For comparison, here is a fairly close photograph of the entire plant without the jeweler’s loupe:

    Stellaria media
  • A Medieval Fantasy

    A little experiment in digital art. It began with a photograph of one of the Gothic gateposts outside the chancery behind St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oakland. That was made black and white, and then put through a multiple-layer “etching” filter, and then every detail that looked at all modern was scribbled over. This is the result. Was it worth the work? Probably not, but one can always learn something from these experiments.