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Book Review: Witness To The Fifties: The Pittsburgh Photographic Library, 1950-1953

Iron and steel city

Pittsburgh is well served by having two remarkable photo books covering the same period. This one and Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project, 1955-1958. Both portray Pittsburgh as a vibrant, changing city in the Fifties with wonderful photos.

Of the two books I prefer 'Witness...' as it has a slight edge in being a superior production and editorially features the work of several photographers. Smith's book is more a personal photographic statement about how he saw the city and is selected from seventeen thousand images he took of Pittsburgh over twelve months.

Schultz and Plattner's book is based on Roy Stryker's photo library that the city planners commissioned him to create in 1949. He was the perfect choice having been in charge of America's greatest photo endeavor: the FSA collection from the Depression years. The eleven photographers he chose turned in some of the best reportage work you'll ever see. There are no duds here, each photo tells a story, whether it's the construction of a modern downtown, folks on the street, at work or at home. Fortunately this is more than just a book of well printed photos. They are divided into loose themes and each gets a short essay putting the images into the context of a growing city. The front of the book has an excellent twenty-six page essay about Stryker's Pittsburgh Photographic Library.

Great photos need a classy looking book and this is the perfect example of that. The photos are one to a page with generous margins and a caption, the printing is on a silky matt art with a 300 screen. So many of these photos are saturated with detail and texture that they require quality printing. A beautiful Russell Lee photo (plate 59) of a street scene with several shops allows you read the signs in the windows or a Clyde Hare shot (plate 20) of downtown looking along Penn Avenue to the partially build Gateway Center is in pin-sharp detail.

This square format book with its beautiful editorial content and production can be regarded as a sort of template for what a documentary photo book should look like.

Witness To The Fifties: The Pittsburgh Photographic Library, 1950-1953 is available at Amazon (US | CA | UK | DE | FR | IT | ES | JP | CN) and Book Depository

Witness To The Fifties: The Pittsburgh Photographic Library, 1950-1953 - 05
Title spread.

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Right: a new housing development from Clyde Hare, 1951.

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Setting the scene: the first two images at the start of the photo section.

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Clyde Hare, 1951 and Elliot Erwitt, 1950.

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A stunning shot from Clyde Hare, 1951.

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Typical spread.

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Esther Bubley and two businessmen downtown in 1950.

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Typical spread.

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Regina Fisher and Russell Lee both from 1951

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Harold Corsini was around in 1950 to capture a tank clearing snow.

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