Diana Nelson Jones’ Walkabout: Photographs that show the sorry picture of local air pollution
September 15, 2015 12:00 AM
An array of Lynn Johnson's photos for the exhibit "In the Air."
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It’s hard to sell people in our region on the fact that our air quality is bad, especially if their fathers or grandfathers worked in the mills. Even the kids of bankers and accountants knew about white shirts that turned gray by midday.
When that’s your benchmark for bad, today looks pretty magnificent. I’m writing this under a gorgeous blue sky.
“In the Air: Visualizing What We Breathe,” a photo exhibition that opens Friday at Pittsburgh Filmmakers in North Oakland, attempts to raise our consciousness about the progress we have yet to make. It has been funded by the Heinz Endowments, which has granted $25 million since 1994 to projects and organizations committed to reducing pollution or educating the public about it.
The show opens with a free, public reception Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. and runs through Feb. 26, 2016.
It brings together what curator Laura Domencic, director of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, calls “a dream team” of photographers, some of whom worked together on a Marcellus Shale project that has been touring the country for three years.
Each photographer took a different aspect of the story of pollution in our region. Lynn Johnson focused her attention on Cheswick, near NRG’s coal-fired power plant in Springdale.
Her series of small portraits show a town and its people, some photographed with the towers puffing in the background.
Brian Cohen chose landscapes, mostly around Pittsburgh — power plants, steel plants, coke plants and traffic as well as a spring in the Laurel Highlands that looks pristine but is not, he said.
“I learned that from a trout fisherman,” he said.
He also photographed people in various locations holding an iPhone with a particulate matter readout from an EPA app.
Scott Goldsmith’s part includes photographs from a train wreck last year in Uniontown, which spilled sand used in hydraulic fracturing in natural gas fields, and from a town hall meeting on air quality in Avalon.
Annie O’Neill’s portion is 10 portraits of survivors of the Donora smog disaster of 1948. Sulfuric acid and carbon monoxide released from a zinc smelting plant nearby was trapped when fog settled over it. The air inversion lasted five days, killing 20 people and affecting the health of thousands more.
Mr. Cohen initiated the project, bringing aboard the other photographers. “In the Air” also includes a book designed by Brett Yasko with essays by Reid Frazier of WESA-FM’s “The Allegheny Front.”
Mr. Cohen said Pittsburgh is blessed to have such local talent “who value the opportunity to do work here about here. We have a lot to talk about” on the topic of air quality, including the high incidence of asthma in the region. “This is about where we live,” but the topic of pollution is universal, he said.
In the ’60s, my family would drive to Pittsburgh for baseball games. Invariably, we would leave a sunny morning in north-central West Virginia and arrive to an afternoon that looked ominous to me. Each time, as we approached the Fort Pitt Tunnel, I wailed, “Daddy, it’s going to rain the game out!” and he said, “No, it’s not going to rain” with such assurance. I couldn’t understand how he could be so confident.
Most of the danger in the air today is what we can’t see or smell, at least most of the time. The Pittsburgh region regularly fails to meet clean air standards for fine particulates of pollution, the deadliest kind. That some polluters operate within federal standards makes it clear the air isn’t the only thing that needs to be improved.
The region’s pollution comes from the effects of industry such as coke works and coal-fired plants combined with traffic and topography. It isn’t all our fault. Industrial plants west of us send bad air our way, but we have plenty of sources of our own that send bad air on to others.
That “downstream” effect is evidence for establishing a societal ethos that everything and everyone is connected to the choices we all make. But there’s a persistent enemy of that realization — denial.
Pittsburgh Filmmakers is at 477 Melwood Ave. Gallery hours are Monday through Thursday 12 to 7 p.m.; Friday 12 to 6 p.m.; and when films are shown in the Melwood Screening Room. Once the exhibit opens, a website will be active at air.thedocumentaryworks.org.
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or 412-263-1626.
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