What is Significant in a Mass of Visual Impressions?


What is Significant in a Mass of Visual Impressions?

Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Spring 2018

"Wallace Richards, one of the lead photographers of the project said about his role that 'photographers can see what is significant in a mass of visual impressions'"
-Witness to the Fifties: Pittsburgh Photographic Library

“I don't even like history!”  I said in frustration, to one of my friends, with one week left to finish planning an exhibition on historical photographs. Of course, this remark came jokingly from a place of stress. And yet, it was still half true. I didn't really “like” history.

The subject of history was always something I never found the time to connect with, even as an Anthropology student. Yet there I was, choosing and developing the “big idea” on an exhibition of 1950s-era photographs which highlighted a key era of local history. During my time interning with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, I quickly came to realize my naiveté and discovered the wider need for historical narratives in many different communities, including my own.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh houses an impressive collection of historical photographs. One such collection, the Pittsburgh Photograph Library (PPL), became the center of my work during my time with the Digital Strategy Department and the REcollection Studio. The REcollection Studio, a DIY Lab for digitizing photographs and videos, has set out on the daunting task of digitizing the PPL materials and all 11,000 or so photographs taken of Pittsburgh during 1950s.

For my internship, I was to help with this task of digitizing and editing photographs. But I also worked on an individual project creating a small exhibition centered on a selection of PPL photographs, as part of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's “Gallery @ Main.”

As I stated earlier, historical work had not been my focus up until this point, despite my studies in Anthropology, Art History, and Museum Studies. When choosing the "Big Idea" for the exhibition, I wanted to consider what sort of statement Pittsburgh was in “need” of hearing. I also was curious what the photographic collection itself “wanted” to tell me.

The “Big Idea” of an exhibition is essentially the main theme organizing what sorts of content will be displayed. For me, the creation of the big idea was the most challenging aspect of creating an exhibition from the ground up. To arrive at this I had flipped through big and worn-out “photo albums” which house printed versions of the photographs as in a scrapbook. I landed on a striking photograph of a young boy in the Hill District wearing on his face a toy mask made out of an advertisement.

Throughout the collection I noticed many photographs that included billboards, televisions, protest signs, and other signage media of that sort. I realized it would be interesting to make a connection between these photos, since the 1950s were an iconic moment of advertisement and media boom in the US. At the same time, the PPL is full of examples of tension and destruction during this period especially in neighborhoods such as the Hill District were in people, such as the boy in the mask, were being forced out of their homes to make way for “urban development.” Looking at this photo of the child wearing a mask, it finally clicked: Signs. A “sign” could very literally be sign held up by a striking worker in front of a steel mill. But the word sign could also be figurative in the way that a photographic of a strike sign also “signals” the shifting attitudes and struggles of the moment in time.

I chose a selection of 15 photographs, which I felt captured the idea but were also a good example of the diversity and scope which the Pittsburgh Photographic Library covered. After creating the theme and choosing the photos I created the wall text, scanned and edited the photo negatives, advertised for the show, and printed and installed all the media on the walls of the Oakland branch of the Carnegie Library. Signs was on exhibit from March 5th to March 31st in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburghs “Gallery @ Main”. After the exhibition went up I also took on the task of giving four guided tours during which I shared the history of the PPL with patrons of the library and creating a reading list of suggested books and a virtual tour of the show.

Do I like history now? I believe much more than before that I have a greater understanding of the messages that lay in looking backwards at our past and how these messages are often tools for the future.

Wallace Richards, one of the lead photographers of the project (the PPL) said about his role that "photographers can see what is significant in a mass of visual impressions." I believe that in my experience with the PPL and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, I was able to catch a glimpse at its significance and I look forward to the public being able to access the photographs once the REcollection Studios hard work is complete.

Take the Virtual Tour of Signs here

Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here


  • Academic Interns
  • Undergraduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh