In September 1950, a young photographer named Elliott Erwitt stepped off a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh and took up a rented room in the downtown YMCA.
Erwitt traveled to the Steel City from New York at the invitation of Roy Stryker, the former head of the famed Information Division of the Farm Security Administration. Stryker had been hired by city planners to assemble a team of photographers tasked with documenting the Steel City as it transitioned from a smog-ridden, industrial powerhouse to a city marked by its institutions rather than its infrastructure. City leaders imagined a Pittsburgh defined by 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 endowed the city its legacy. Stryker's team, taking the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (PPL) as a name, was to put a face to this post-industrial transition.
The 11 photographers under Stryker's employ were tasked with creating a collective portrait of the city's rebirth. Each received instructions from Stryker on what to photograph: some focused on the demolition and construction in the downtown core known as 'The Point', while others documented the lives of residents in various neighbors. Unlike the other photographers, Erwitt, then just 22-years-old, was given free reign to photograph anything that caught his eye. This was one of his first, and certainly the largest, assignments he had ever received in his short career as a professional.
Erwitt spent just four months in Pittsburgh, his time cut short by an Army draft notice. He departed the city in December, leaving his negatives behind in the PPL's archive.
After several years of leading of the PPL, Stryker too eventually left Pittsburgh and the project folded. The negatives made their way to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where they've been relatively undisturbed (although always available to the public) since the early 1960s.
As a former resident of Pittsburgh with a keen interest in historical photography, I was vaguely aware that Erwitt, one of my favorite photographers, had passed through Pittsburgh; one of his most iconic and famous images, of a child pointing a toy gun to his head (slide 5, above), bears the simple and cryptic caption "Pittsburgh 1950." I turned to the digital archives of Magnum, the renowned photo agency that Erwitt joined in 1953, and found ten or so other photos from Pittsburgh, but all had equally vague captions.
In 2011, a chance Google search led to me to find a reference to the PPL online, which eventually took me to the Carnegie Library. There, in a back room in the attic preservation lab, I was introduced to a collection of 18,000 negatives. While leafing through a crumbling book of typewritten caption sheets and contact proofs, I came across an entire sheet of images credited to Erwitt. Amazed that the negatives were accessible to the public, I re-visited the library regularly, making reference images of Erwitt's images that stood out to me.
The next year, while writing a story about for TIME Magazine's LightBox photo blog, I had the chance to drop by Erwitt's studio in New York City. I mentioned that I had been reviewing his Pittsburgh negatives and at first, he seemed perplexed. I realized that Erwitt had not thought about these images in a very, very long time.
After more than six decades as a professional photographer, he never had the chance to revisit the photographs he made as a 22-year-old. Now 89, Erwitt was looking afresh at some of the earliest work of his professional career.
With the generous assistance of the Carnegie Library, I began ferrying groups of Erwitt's negatives to his New York studio, where together we reviewed their contents. Over the course of four years, we compiled a selection of 400+ negatives from his four months in Pittsburgh. Even more notably, many of these images came from Stryker's "kill" file, a place where the editor moved negatives he deemed unproductive to the narrative he was constructing in Pittsburgh. In past projects, Stryker would holepunch killed negatives, rendering them unable to be printed. But in Pittsburgh, the kills remained intact, allowing Elliott and I to examine the unfiltered wanderings of his young eye.
Most remarkable to me is how Erwitt's vision as a 22-year-old photographer holds remarkably true to the vision his audience has come to know of him in the following six decades. Throughout his Pittsburgh work, we see the moments Erwitt is most revered for — the small, quirky flashes of humanity that remind us of a shared humanity.
Elliott Erwitt's Pittsburgh: 1950 is published by GOST Books.