In September 1950, 22-year-old Elliott Erwitt stepped off a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh and, new to the city, took a small, rented room at the YMCA downtown. The Paris-born Erwitt had traveled to Pittsburgh from New York at the invitation of Roy Stryker, the former head of the Information Division of the federal government’s Farm Security Administration. Controlling, magnanimous, often impossibly mission-driven, Stryker had furthered the careers of countless photojournalists, many of whom – Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks and more – in later years would be recognized as pioneers whose visual stories helped define the first half of the 20th century.
At the time Erwitt arrived in Pittsburgh, Stryker was tasked with a commission by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a project that aimed to document the City of Bridges at mid-century. The ACCD envisioned a far different postwar Pittsburgh than the bleak mill towns of popular imagination. In place of a Pittsburgh defined by steel manufacturing and smog that dimmed the midday sun, the ACCD saw a remade city of glass and gloss, and even greenery: a cultural and academic center in its own right, made modern by far more than the heavy industry that gifted Pittsburgh its legacy. Planners hoped to endow the downtown core with a post-industrial sophistication – but they also knew that bringing dreams of this sort to fruition came with a heavy public cost. They recognized the need for a stirring, methodical photographic documentation of the transition from the old Pittsburgh to the new. Continue reading.