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Artists' exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Art shows the power of a photo

| Tuesday, June 3, 2014, 9:36 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Melissa Catanese and Ed Panar sit in The Sandbox at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland. The exhibit features photography books, a reading room, as well as A People's History of Pittsburgh, which compiles family photos and stories into a collective family album of sorts for the area.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A People's History of Pittsburgh, which compiles family photos and stories into a collective family album at The Sandbox at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland.

A couple of Pittsburgh artists are putting focus on the importance of viewing photography in a tangible format.

Ed Panar and Melissa Catanese are artists in residence at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where they oversee the “The Sandbox: At Play With the Photobook,” their contribution to the Hillman Photography Initiative. The installation runs through July 28.

“It's more intimate,” Panar says of hard-copy photobooks as opposed to digital alternatives. “There is no off switch.”

Despite an abundance of Internet-based systems for showing their work, photographers still gravitate toward photobooks, say Panar and Catanese, owners of Spaces Corners, a Pittsburgh book shop dedicated to photography books.

“There has been an increased interest in bookmaking in the last five years,” Panar says. “It's a portable exhibit. Usually, exhibits are only up for a few months, but a book lives on. It's a powerful and active format.”

Chris Rolinson, assistant professor of photography and photojournalism at Point Park University, says photobooks and hard copies of photographs can initiate interaction even more so than images posted to social media.

“They're something you can hold in your hand,” he says. “You can start a conversation about it whether you're on a park bench or at your kitchen table. You can pass it around and get people involved. You're generally not sitting around with others looking at photos on Facebook.”

Uploading photos online without printing actual hard copies is “dangerous,” Rolinson says.

“I think we've been lulled into the myth that things on the Internet are permanent,” he says. “That's not exactly true. Some social-media sites come and go. As we see more consolidation on the Internet, (site owners) might not be interested in keeping images around. It hasn't happened on a large scale, yet, but I'm fearful of things that can happen.”

Panar calls photobooks “a cross between novels and film — like paper movies.” For “The Sandbox,” the couple picked only books created with a specific theme or story in mind. Compilations without any particular structure weren't considered.

The collection is based on six themes — social studies, puzzles, time and place, archives, science fiction and dreams, and the life of objects. Titles devoted to each subject are found throughout the exhibit, with the week's focus featured in the center of the room.

“The Sandbox” is located in the museum's Coatroom Gallery, now turned into a pop-up bookshop and reading room complete with comfy couch and tables covered in books.

“We wanted a space where people can play and discover things,” Catanese says. “As long as you keep it in the sandbox, we can do whatever you want to do.”

A second aspect of the “The Sandbox” encourages the public to comb through their photo albums. “A People's History of Pittsburgh” invites people to upload images onto a website and offer narratives explaining each one's significance. A selection of submitted images will be featured in a new publication. “The Sandbox” holds scanning days the fourth Thursday of each month when folks can add their images to the project in person.

Catanese and Panar have collected nearly 200 images in the first few weeks of the project — everything from old family portraits and baby pictures to candid shots, scenery and more. They will wait to determine any themes for the book until later in the process, they say.

“We want it to have its own life online first before we decide how best to document it,” Catanese says.

Cindy Huffine, owner of The Crop Shop in Greensburg, a scrapbooking store, says while people are storing photos digitally, many still recognize the value of hard copies.

“That's your legacy,” she says. “Once you make that memory, if you don't have a hard copy, you forget what you had.”

Hard copies can hold glimpses into the past that digital versions simply can't, Huffine says. For example, many old photos have the taker's handwriting on them. She's encouraged by the number of young people who show an interest in scrapbooking at her classes.

“It doesn't have to be overwhelming,” she says. “You can just print as you go.”

The “People's History” images, while simply fun to look at, also are meant to inspire the viewer to think about what was happening in life at that exact moment.

“We got one that said, ‘This is Uncle Harry fishing. He's remembered by a lot of people in a lot of different ways,” Catanese says. “That just makes you wonder, what does that mean? What's his story?

“It does create a bonding experience. It makes you want to go home, dig through your shoeboxes and talk to your family.”

Rachel Weaver is a staffwriter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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