The Next Page: Pittsburgh, old-school style

When artist Ben Hall comes to town, he sees the city in a different way. (No Instagram required.)


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Editor's note: In late August, I took my daughters and their friends to Kennywood for the annual full-day romp. This year, it really struck me: Just about every patron was clutching a digital photographic device to record each precious moment, instantly and indiscriminately.

One fellow stood out in the crowd. He was lugging a bevy of old cameras, including a Polaroid. He'd linger at an amusement and carefully push a button. As day turned to dusk, after noticing him multiple times, I stopped and asked Ben Hall what he was up to ...


By Ben Hall

I didn't grow up in Pittsburgh, but I feel a strong connection to this city and its people. I grew up in southeast Michigan, about 30 miles outside of Detroit, and I come from a very working-class family. My dad was a machinist. People in that part of the country are down to earth -- very blue collar -- and that's why I feel so much at home when I'm here. There's so much pride. It's a city of rough landscapes and interiors, but the people have such a positive attitude. You root for them.

I've been visiting Pittsburgh for about a decade. My wife, Katie, was born and raised here. We live in Brooklyn with our 2-year-old daughter, Andie, and we want to show her the places that are important to Katie and her family. We want Andie to understand where she came from; we want to show her the ropes.

These photos document summertime in Pittsburgh, the way Katie describes it and the way we want our daughter to remember it. You don't see families in these images, but these are the places where families go -- the amusement park, the baseball stadium, the diner. They're memories that everyone in Pittsburgh shares.

For Katie, the ultimate happy memory is Kennywood. Andie's now the third generation of her family to make an annual summer visit to the amusement park. Primanti Bros. is another family landmark: Katie's mom grew up in Pittsburgh as well, and she remembers riding along with her dad on late-night trips to the Strip District in the 1950s to buy produce for his bar. On the way home, they joined the other restaurant owners and truck drivers for a sandwich at Primanti's, back when the restaurant put fries and slaw on the sandwiches for a pragmatic reason. That makes it relevant to Katie's history and now Andie's history, too.

My background is in fine arts (painting and drawing) but over the past year I've really taken to photography and shooting with old film cameras: a Leica M3 from 1961, a Mamiya C330 twin-lens reflex and a Polaroid 250 from 1967. (Polaroid may be defunct, but Fuji still makes film.) On this page, we've selected images from the Polaroid only.

The process behind these photos underlines the connection between past and present. I pull the Polaroid out of the camera, and instead of waiting the recommended 60 seconds, I pull off the emulsion piece -- the negative -- right away, and let it expose onto a piece of paper. The result is a hybrid between conventional photos, antique photos and watercolors. It's real and it's gritty, but it's also very beautiful -- just like Pittsburgh.

People ask why I don't always shoot with a digital camera. I tell them there is a certain sensitivity with analog formats, whether Polaroid film or vinyl records. As much as I like Instagram (the mobile phone app that enhances pictures), digital photos and image filtering software just don't have the same soul. There's something special when I'm taking a photo and hit "click" -- I don't know what's going to come out. I think a lot of people used to experience that, but you don't have it with digital. Because I'm interested in capturing genuine moments and places, this is the perfect format for me -- and Pittsburgh is the perfect subject.

I'm still discovering Pittsburgh, and still learning what makes it tick. But I know this much: It's a city that embraces its past, but it still moves forward. It's seen some tough times, but it's still standing and it's still strong. It's a place for Andie to keep visiting, or eventually even live. Whatever she decides to do with her life, Pittsburgh will be here for her.

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Ben Hall (benhall.j@gmail.com) lives in Brooklyn. See more of his work at BenintheBK.com.


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