Review: Filmmaker's photo exhibit includes Lawrenceville up close
Hilary Robinson's photo exhibit “Pittsburgh je t'aime,” at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Galleries in Oakland, proves there's a lot to be seen in a simple walk around your neighborhood.
Robinson's neighborhood was Lawrenceville, where she used to walk down 36th Street past the warehouses, clamber across the railroad tracks, walk along the trail up to about 42nd, pass more warehouses, then head up to the cemetery and circle around through the back streets and back along the trail.
Along the way, she would take her iPhone and snap pictures of what she found interesting — a rusty key, a bricked-up window, graffiti on a wall.
The show consists of a series of more than 100 small, printed images, taken in and around Lawrenceville, as well as other parts of Pittsburgh, with an iPhone, simply pinned to the walls of the gallery in small groupings, some thematically so, others sporadic, as if you would happen upon the subjects of each yourself along the same path.
Of course, Robinson isn't your average woman out for a walk with her iPhone. The London-based artist was trained as a painter, then transitioned to writing about art and art theory before moving into leadership roles in art schools, including dean of the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University from 2005 to '10.
While in Pittsburgh, she was a board member of the Andy Warhol Museum, Quantum Theatre, Silver Eye Center for Photography and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. She is still a board member for the Mattress Factory.
She moved back to the United Kingdom in 2012 and is now the dean of the School of Art and Design and professor of visual culture at Middlesex University in London, where her teaching and research focuses on feminist art theory.
She says she got the idea for the Pittsburgh Filmmakers exhibit from her childhood memories of her great-uncle, Jesse Trask, one of 15 children of a blacksmith from Butleigh, near Glastonbury, Somerset.
“It was my uncle Jesse who taught me important lessons about how to look, about the democracy of looking and about the knowledge gained when you really see something,” she says.
When World War I started, like all the young men in villages and towns throughout the United Kingdom, Trask was drafted into the infantry and sent to France. There, he was captured and put into a prisoner-of-war camp. Two years later, at the end of the war, he was released and returned to Butleigh, where he worked as a gamekeeper.
Robinson says that for the rest of his life, her great-uncle traveled no farther than Glastonbury. As part of his life as a gamekeeper, he would walk a 10-mile circuit of the estate every day.
“He knew that place intimately and would point out details to me when I accompanied him on childhood visits,” Robinson says. “He died in his 90s, when I was 9, but I understood the full richness of his life and experience, expressed not by words but by his sharing of small visual clues, details that I would not have noticed, that told him about the animals and their lives, the seasons, the plants and the weather.”
Though many of the images bring the mundane to light, each in subtle yet profound ways, some are simply more peculiar than most. For example, an image of a xylophone nailed to a telephone pole is a curious sight.
“The xylophone was on 36th Street,” Robinson says. “I had walked past it may times before I photographed it, then I photographed it once more a couple of months later when it had disintegrated further.”
Two images contain graffiti that, rather odd for Pittsburgh, include French phrases. Both were taken under the 40th Street Bridge.
“ Je m'en fous (I don't care) — exactly how I felt when I saw it, but such a lovely upward flying bird,” Robinson says. “The Pittsburgh je t'aime (I love you) — so perfect. Dave DeSimone asked for a copy of that for his restaurant on the South Side. Then one day, I went past and it had been painted over. If you go under the 40th Street Bridge now, there's a mural painted by someone who is not living in Pittsburgh.”
Robinson says something changed there in 2012.
“At the end of the trail was the concrete slab — often there would be evidence of something having happened, a bit of human life.” That led to her image of a chair next to remnants of a fire. “That chair was left there, as if someone was creating a stage set,” she says.
“In these photos, I didn't touch anything or move or arrange anything,” Robinson says. “And I just used the regular iPhone camera, without any apps or any cropping. Only one photo in the exhibition was taken with the iPhone zoom, and one is shown on its side. Otherwise, what you see is what I got, there and then.”
Perhaps the most curious image is that of a dirt-covered egg Robinson holds in one hand.
“I've been photographing things I've found placed in my hand for a long time,” she says. “Some things get photographed on the ground, a few things I'll pick up and put on my hand to photograph. It's a matter of instinct. This one is of an egg that I found in my compost heap, intact. It's extraordinary what you dig up when you are growing things, but an intact egg was a surprise. I took it as an omen.”
It's an opportunity for friends, colleagues and the general public to meet up with her and see these amazing images.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.