#Yinzstgrammer Spotlight #2: Kelly Carter of pghbox

Originally published March 14th, 2017.

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Last week I had a fabulous chat with Kelly Carter of the Pittsburgh Instagram page, Pghbox.  I reached out to Kelly because I have always been a fan of her work, but we ended up talking for nearly 45 minutes about Pittsburgh, architecture, and what WE can be doing to help our city.

Kelly is known for her photos of different houses around the city,  but her passion for homes and community stretches far beyond that.  We discovered we are on the same page about a lot things, especially concerning some... *ahem* ...less than pleasant redevelopments in Pittsburgh.

We are currently in the early stages of forming a congenial gang that rallies for thoughtful architecture in Pittsburgh! Who is with us!?

Cheers Kelly, and thanks for talking!  Be sure to check her out on Pghbox, and her personal Instagram

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What takes you around the city?
Kelly Carter: I like to wander, and I like to do it on foot. In a car you can zip through, but in terms of a photo, you have to take what you can get. I try to build it into whatever I am doing.  I might take a different way home from the grocery store. Pittsburgh is small, but there is so much I haven't seen. 

What do you think of Instagram?
KC: I really love Instagram, and I kick myself for not getting it sooner. I don't get Twitter at all, and never have. For a while, I thought Instagram was kinda like that. I really didn't get the hashtag thing.  I came back in 2015 discovered how important it is, especially for photographers.

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What spurred you to start using Instagram more:
KC: I think I finally figured out how many artists use it to show their work.  I've bought a lot of art I'd never have known about if I didn't see it on there. I guess I finally saw how it could be used in a meaningful way to show what you're about.  It's funny, if I want to know what was going on during a certain perod if time, say April of last year, I'll go to those pictures and I can almost feel it.  It's just really a great timeline of your work, your life, or whatever you have going on. 

What did you talk about on your website? 
KC: I grew up and lived in Sheraden until about four years ago.  It's in the West End and not a name brand neighborhood, but my Mom lived there and wouldn't budge.  She was getting older and needed some care, and I wanted to work on old houses. I decided to dig in where I was.  I bought some houses on my block, and photographed them to document the work.  One thing led to another, and I began asking friends and neighbors if I could photograph their places.  A lot of people didn't think their places were worth showing, but I've always found beauty in the everyday routine - what someone is cooking in their kitchen, or what book they were reading the night before and left laying on the table. 

Did you have any experience redoing homes?
KC: When I was in Sheraden, the place next to where I lived was in pretty bad shape.  When the owner passed away, a landlord known for not taking care of his properties or tenants showed interest.   That couldn't happen, so I borrowed cash and bought it immediately.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I made mistakes, hired some great people and some no-so-great people, and learned a lot.  I fixed it up in about 8 months and found great tenants.  It was an experiment, really. Despite the challenges, I loved the whole process, and bought a few more on the same block as they became available.  A few friends bought houses there too. 

How did photography come into play?
KC: I have always enjoyed photography.  I would take pictures of things while out at music shows or whatever, but the real estate really pushed it.  I started seeing things I had to photograph, specifically the before and afters for the buildings I worked on. If you missed the 'before' shot you would never see it again. I am always reminding friends to capture it when it looks horrible!  It's so important and you'll be happy you did later. 

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What part of the city is your favorite to capture?
KC: I love going through weird little alleys in whatever neighborhood. You can think you know a neighborhood, and but when you take a new route you see a totally different side.  A set of rooflines on ordinary houses under the right light or at sunset can be really beautiful.

Your pictures show the varied neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. What do think of the architecture of the city?
KC: We have some beautiful architecture, and it breaks my heart because I don't know what our future classics will be. The buildings going up right now hurt my heart.  I'd be happy to never see a piece of corrugated anything for the rest of my life.  We need some sort of design review group that's in-between historic preservation and what we're getting.  It's happening so fast, but Pittsburgh is small enough that we should be able to manage this.  We're just not.  There seems to be more thought put into banners that drape across the new buidlings than into the buildings themselves. 

Do you have an example?
KC: An example of what I do like? I always joke that the best new building is the bus stop across from Target.  I don't know really.  It's like the developers are too shy to go really modern, so everything looks like Panera.  But you know that pink building in Larimer?  The place that's a Crossfit gym, and I think was a bakery when painted? That seriously is just some 50s style facing brink painted a bold color, and it looks awesome.  It didn't require a ton of work or money, and it adds to the landscape.  We need more art in our architecture.  Instead of fining people for writing graffiti on walls, put them to work painting facades.  Some of them are actually great visual artists, and our city is pretty beige right now. 

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Yeah, I agree. This new metal beam and steel sheets style doesn't look good, and is going to look dated in just a few years.  
KC: It already looks dated? Am I wrong? Not retro enough to be retro, and not modern.  We wont be excited about these structures in 50 years.  There has to be something in the middle, between nondescript conrrugated buildings and historic preservation.  This is the first time cities are being redone.  These places have always looked like this, and a handful of developers have control of what they're going to look like for the rest of our lifetime.  They're failing, if you ask me, and nobody is really talking about it. 

Such great points. 
For instance, if you're driving from Point breeze into East Liberty - that's literally the gateway to what's supposed to be one of the hottest parts of the country right now.  That corridor does not convey that message.  The green and blue rope lighting?  I wish we had local journalists dedicated to covering redevelopment.  We need to push them and maybe even show them what we need. 

I think a lot of people feel that way, but never say anything.  I know you are vocalizing a lot of thoughts I have never said out loud.  

Yeah. Like the Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, we should start out own group... Pittsburghers for Respectful Redevelopment . And, while it does make me angry, I want it to be a kind group. We need a Mr. Rogers to give a soft nudge to "Please think twice before you redevelop." Another idea would be to give awards to the people doing it right. I think about this all the time, but I'm only one person.  

Do you have a photo that shows a part of the city you would like see highlighted more often?

I did a portrait series at the East Liberty Senior Center "Vintage."  Beyond being some of my favorite pictures I have ever taken, it was an incredible experience.   The folks who go there were so excited to be photographed.  Some commented that they hadn't had their portrait taken in almost 40 years.  They got dressed up in fabulous outfits, with beautiful jewelry.  The niece of Teenie Harris was sitting at the lunch table one day and said, "My uncle was a photographer" - lol.  The place is amazing.  My mom spent her last two years going there and I'm so happy about that.  So, I'm looking for a wall to put these portraits on in East Liberty - a photo mural really, to show the faces of people who are there even though you may not see them walking around.  They are a huge part of the community.  I did something similar in Braddock last fall. 

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That is awesome! What a fantastic idea. I hope that works out! Do you have any other photos that come to you from your work?

Lighting is everything. This is probably weird, but I love this photo of drawer knobs.  It was just one of those moments with light.

Is there anything else you like photographing in the city?

Graffiti and art.  It's all part of the landscape.  I look at the facade of a house, good or bad, the same way I look at a character someone drew on a train car I walk past.  I wish there were more opportunities for collaboration.  Like, instead of fining people for graffiti, connect the ones who can really paint with house flippers who paint facades beige because they aren't good with color.  Stuff like that.  I know, I'm crazy. 

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