Andrea London has been a portrait photographer for 30 years. She works from her studio in the heart of Shadyside, where she films everyone – individuals and families – in the same way: in black and white, on film, on a neutral background. And she says she always let her portraits speak for themselves.
But during the 2016 presidential campaign, letting the images speak became insufficient.
“With racism, hatred and xenophobia starting to surface, which became much more common during the presidential election, and which has worsened since then, I decided that I could no longer let my portraits speak for me. “, she says. “I started looking for people who are often seen as the other – members of the LGBT community, immigrants, refugees, people with disabilities, the elderly.
The result is “We are all related, A two-part project that includes a gallery exhibit in downtown Pittsburgh and a public art installation in East Liberty, both open this weekend. As the shows build on three decades of work in London, she says, many of the dozens of images have been shot over the past two and a half years.
The subjects in the portrait represent a representative sample of residents of the region, with a wide variety of ages, skin colors, national origins and gender identities: a transgender man, a family whose patriarch was recently deported and a blind woman whose parents fought to get her to attend a public elementary school. One of the portraits is of a Nepalese refugee couple, recent immigrants who, the first time she photographed them, were expecting twins; the second time she shot them was with their twin daughters, who were born American citizens.
“The theme of this project is that at some level of human experience that transcends who we are, what we look like, where we come from, who we revere or love, that we are all connected on some level very basic human, “she says.
“The project is not about me, it is not about the people in the photographs,” adds London. “It’s about all of us.
The Downtown exhibit, which opens Friday, will wrap the 937 Liberty Gallery at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust with 62 portraits ranging in height from 7 inches to over 7 feet. There is also a 16-minute video of portrait subjects telling their stories, and a tapestry that combines portions of images of their faces with samples of the clothes they were wearing when they were photographed – a “fabric of the cloth”. Literal ‘humanity’, says London.
The public art installation consists of 53 portraits, each 8 feet tall, hung from the first-floor windows of a new but unoccupied commercial building at the corner of Penn and Center avenues (across from Penn from Target). Some of the images and subjects overlap with those in the gallery exhibit. The installation includes the words “We Are Related” in the 17 languages represented by the subjects.
London said she wanted to place the facility in East Liberty “because I think it’s a community that has gone through a lot of difficult changes over the past few years.”
When asked if she was referring to the gentrification of the neighborhood, which has displaced many longtime African American businesses and residents, London replied: “Inclusiveness is the theme of this project.
London says she consulted with community activists in East Liberty before proceeding with the installation. Window space was donated by Mosites Construction & Development Company. Other funders include The Opportunity Fund.
The facility officially opens with a free celebration on Sundays at the Penn and Center, including food and live music. London adds: “A lot of [portrait subjects] who are in the facility will be there to celebrate with us, and I can’t wait to introduce them to the community.
The exhibition and installation will remain in place until May 12. A book of the exhibit will be available at local bookstores, 937 Liberty, and online.