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Pittsburgh Portfolio

Picture of Rajesh Punj
Updated: 25 January 2016
Pittsburgh’s dynamic art scene has caught the attention of Rajesh Punj. Here he selects five accomplished photographers from the region – Aaron Blum, Ivette Spradlin, John Peña, Dylan Vitone, and Robert Raczka – and analysed their works in details.

Aaron Blum

Aaron Blum is a photographer from Appalachia (located within a diaspora of mountains in West Virginia), from where he forensically watches over his homeland with the observation and expertise of an ethnographer recording the balances and imbalances of an altering geography. Appalachia appears like a corner of God’s earth where the lives of the people are conditioned by the maturing landscape. Born and Raised: Reflections of a World Set Aside is a telling series of photographs that are as unnerving as they appear wholesome. Mon River (2010) is a subdued shot of an idyllic landscape that stretches into the distance, marred only by the dishevelled foreground of a burnt-out fire, bottles, cans and general detritus littering the earth irrevocably. The Living Room (2010) appears like a scene from The Stepford Wives in which the interior displays an unconscious symmetry. Scare Crow (2010) is another shot of a black crow swinging from a dry and dishevelled tree, dead for some time in the cold light of day. Untitled (2010) is a close up shot of a sofa pressed up against netted curtains as the daylight illuminates the creases and crevices of the soft furnishing. Finally from the series, Fetching the Doctor (2010) is a glorious photograph of autumn coloured clad shelving, attached to a mantelpiece or a reception desk, upon which a series of dated objects and ornaments suggest something of the clientele of this up-standing interior. All of these emblems are as beguiling as they are mysterious.




Ivette Spradlin

Ivette Spradlin’s photo-works are as sensitive as they appear crass. In her 2006 series Cuba, Spradlin fires light into room corners and interior spaces that are rooted in the Cuban geography and environment. She records a small table that appears prepared for a meal; plastic beakers, forks and dry slivers of bread divided into four. A grainy portrait of Cuban aristocrats is pinned to a larger billboard, rooted in the pavement against a dilapidated government building. A dishevelled bedroom, unpainted and uncarpeted, is clad in ghetto-blaster style speakers, a TV and a video recorder. More pertinent still is a photograph of an aging television set resting in a room corner, upon which a red coloured porcelain ship rises up over the turbulent water, sandwiched between a framed portrait of a mature woman and a photograph of a couple poised for a piece of history. Another image from the series is a snap-shot of a very simple bedroom, marvel floor, matching bed covers and a regular side-table and cabinet that is specifically located by a small crudely cut image of Fidel Castro in his characteristic green uniform. From Everything Changed, Then Changed Again (2011), Spradlin photographs middle-aged women identified by their location. For her latest series of photo-works the photographer demonstrates a visual solidarity with her gender.



John Peña

John Peña lives and works in Pittsburgh. More an artist than exclusively a photographer, and working in multiple mediums, his style demonstrates a certain playfulness. Letters to the Ocean (2003) is a poetic wall work of hundreds of deliberately returned letters that are heavily defaced as a consequence of their non-destination; each being sent to the vast ocean. After some two weeks in circulation, through offices and mailbags, these false entities come back damaged and stamped. From Peña’s Untitled Cloud Series, highlights include Outrunning Clouds, which is an amusing but wonderfully poetic attempt by the artist to outrun a moving cloud, as it rises up and over the open plain. Another from the series Shadow #1 is an incredibly simple observation piece of the artist’s own shadow silhouetted onto goose grass, appearing and disappearing, before reappearing again. In Hope, Peña tries to press the letters h-o-p-e upon a vast tilled landscape in Desert Aire, Washington. He constructed a steel sign that was propped up before the sun set, casting a shadow upon a field of dry dirt. Another playful work, Leaf Shadow, has Peña reorganising a pile of dry autumn leaves onto the shadow of a tree. Upon completing his temporary sculpture, the tree’s shadow has moved on and it appears that Peña’s sculpture was misplaced and misjudged – until of course the shadow returns to its original position and retriggers his work.



Dylan Vitone



Dylan Vitone is Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and records American states through an elongated lens. His panoramic photographs recall the work of British artist Sam Taylor-Wood. A majority of Vitone’s US works appear in black and white and are slightly dumbed down for it. But when he leaves his home soil for the more alien circumstances of Doha or Qatar, his stylised approach appears to work much more effectively. A beautiful panoramic shot of men bent double on the pavement proves an endearing photograph of the elemental strength of religion upon its people. An apocalyptic landscape shows twisted steel and disengaged rubble that litter an industrial site in the vain hope of reshaping the city. A technological masterpiece of steel and glass is lit by artificial light illuminating vast tower blocks that stand side by side, and boiler suited immigrant workers appear gloved and masked as they lay artificial grass into the crevasses of a new road side curb. A shopping plaza divided in two by a thread of water attempts to resemble Venetian canals and cleverly poses consumerism as the alternative religion in the city; all of them representative of the jarring forces turning this city over on a daily basis.



Robert Raczka

Robert Raczka is a photographer from Pittsburgh, who predominantly photographs the city in unsolicited sequences that are determined by his short distance flâneries with a small camera, stopping, composing and registering un-composed elements of the city at night or in daylight and always as tight portraits. Most recently, Landmarks (2010) is a series of Kodak style snapshots composed of unusual and un-staged juxtapositions of objects and neon signs through shards of glass and refracted light. Fake plastic flowers are tied in a bouquet to a trailer; ivy and thick greenery overwhelm a graffitied railing. An enormous ice-cream cone sits in a shop window, beside a beef tomato and a syrup bottle. An unfathomable photograph depicts a lunar landscape that might be as much a model as it is the real thing. A beautiful composition of a rusting cog coiled machine purposely entangled in the multiple reflections of a building, telegraph poles and streetlights, is shot by Raczka through a glass. Another is of a scrupled piece of silver foil that bends in multiple directions, as the reflecting light decorates the surface like shards of light on the face of a spacecraft. These photographs collectively make for an engaging portrait of Raczka’s city.


By Rajesh Punj