By Susan Constanse
There is considerable drama to the Pittsburgh landscape, with its river valleys and striking skyline. The slopes are textured with rowhouses peeping through treetops in haphazard lines, and each neighborhood has unique edifices and architectural details in their many public buildings and places of worship. Framing the Pittsburgh landscape in the viewfinder of a camera is a passionate pursuit of amateur and professional photographers, showcasing the beauty of our city as well as their own talents.
Walking out the door with your camera bag packed is only the first step in shooting landscapes. The biggest decision that you have to make is where you will be shooting from. Tim Fabian, who collaborated on the books, “The Steps of Pittsburgh – Portrait of a City” and “The Bridges of Pittsburgh,” has spent time in every season traveling the city, shooting in all of the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Tim thinks that some of the best photographs can be taken within fifty feet of your own back door.
“Of all the great themes, landscape is the easiest to get into” Tim says, “because it’s all around you.”
The more I thought about what Tim said, the more I found appealing about it. I grew up on a very short street on the Southside slopes. Cobden Street overlooks the Monongahela River, and Bandi Schaum Field. The city falls away from the end of the street into lush foliage, and rowhouses are packed along narrow alleys that wind down from the slopes into the river valley. The Pittsburgh skyline was a backdrop for my childhood adventures.
There are dozens of streets like Cobden in every neighborhood of the city. Tim shared a couple of his favorites with me. “The Pedestrian Walkway, over the Boulevard of the Allies has a fabulous view of Southside and the Monongehela Valley and Pittview Avenue, above Millvale, is great for Lawrenceville and Allegheny Valley views.” Said Tim, “The top of Rising Main Avenue in Fineview and the top of St. Thomas Street on Southside are also pretty fabulous.”
Coming out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel is a favorite view for natives and visitors, especially at night when the Golden Triangle sits in splendid light. But unless you can shoot from a moving vehicle, it’s a hard shot to make. The closest that you can get are the overlook platforms along Grandview Avenue in Mt. Washington. There is a reason that this is a view that has produced some of the most iconic photographs of Pittsburgh; the entire city is laid out from a dizzying height.
Not too far from Grandview Avenue, at least for crows, is West End-Elliott Overlook Park. The park affords a grand view of Point Park from a lower elevation than Mt. Washington, with the downtown skyline rising above it. But don’t limit your inspiration to the downtown skyline; the outlook is unsurpassed for its views of the Ohio River.
The challenge for photographers in these two locations is to bring your own unique choices to the location. Timing and weather can be important factors in getting a unique shot. Think about going out in stormy weather and shooting a cloud front moving up one of the three rivers, or when the city is shrouded with fog. Snow, ice and rain can add texture to your images, and produce light qualities that are as beautiful as clear skies and sunlight.
Off the beaten track, the Fineview Overlook offers an alternative view of the Allegheny Valley. As with most of the overlooks, the downtown skyline is visible along with the surrounding hillsides and slopes of the river valleys. A short hop away, in Spring Hill, is Rhine Street. Meandering up through Spring Hill, the river valley view is of the downtown skyline and the city center neighborhoods.
Along with the overlook platforms, Pittsburgh has a network of pocket-sized parks with great views. Frank Curto Park, located on Bigelow Blvd., is a very narrow and small park that overlooks the Strip District and the Allegheny River. It is rather difficult to get to, only accessible on the inbound lane of 380. It is worth the effort, though. The park is home to public art, and is well maintained. The view over the Allegheny River and of the hill top neighborhoods of Troy Hill and Spring Garden is amazing.
Although there is no official overlook, there are wonderful views of the Monogehela Valley from Bigelow St. in Greenfield. A good base of operations would be Bud Harris Park, where you can drop off your car and set out on foot to explore the area.
River views from the overlooks and hill top parks abound in Pittsburgh. One of the exceptions is Overlook Drive in Schenley Park. The Oakland vista is most prominent. Views of Oakland usually feature the Cathedral of Learning as a prominent feature, but the view from Flagstaff Hill takes in an alternate view of Schenley Park.
Most of Pittsburgh’s many bridges are accessible by foot and many have small walking parks underneath. One of my favorite bridge views is from the Washington Crossing Bridge in Lawrenceville. There is a walking park and a parking lot under the bridge on the Lawrenceville side, which offer by turns a panoramic and intimate view of the Allegheny River.
Even though these locations lend themselves to sweeping and grandiose images, it is worth examining what alternatives each location offers. What interests you in a scene, bringing your own vision and sensibilities to bear, is what will make for unique images. Take lots of pictures, and really look at and think about what you like about them in between your outings. As with any artistic practice, technical expertise is secondary to the idea that you want to convey. Experience and practice will increase your skills, contemplation and observation will hone the ideas that you want to convey.
A couple places in Pittsburgh offer classes ranging from one-day workshops to full semesters, covering film and digital photography for all levels of experience. Pittsburgh Filmmakers, located in Oakland, has equipment for developing and printing film as well as digital printing. The Silver Eye Center for Photography also offers workshops. Casual photography groups, like the Pittsburgh Photo Safari group, meet weekly to shoot and discuss their work. Locations and subject matter vary, but with meeting so often there is bound to be a subject or location that suits your interest.
In order to find your way to all of the locations discussed in this article, I have put together a Google map. It’s a public map, and you are welcome to add your favorite locations to share with other photographers.
477 Melwood Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
Administration Hours: Mon to Fri 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Silver Eye Center for Photography
1015 East Carson Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15203
Gallery Hours: Tues to Sat 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.
Pittsburgh Photo Safari group
Susan Constanse is a painter, living and working in Pittsburgh. Examples of her work can be viewed on her site.