Photo Essay: ‘In the Air: Visualizing What We Breathe’

Enlightening, visually riveting and at times hauntingly beautiful, this collection of photos provides a multidimensional picture of pollution’s effects on our environment and economy.

caption information provided by Pittsburgh Filmmakers

“The air, the air is everywhere” states the obvious, but the deceptively breezy ditty from the musical “Hair” also reminds us that sinister sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide may be hovering around us.

“In the Air: Visualizing What We Breathe,” a photo-documentary collaboration at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Gallery, also reminds us to “look” more closely at the atmosphere. Even though Pittsburgh is no longer known as the Smoky City, we shouldn’t be lulled into breathing easy when it comes to air quality.

Over the course of a year, four photographers — Brian Cohen (initiator of the project), Scott Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson and Annie O’Neill — turned their eyes on western Pennsylvania, aiming to record the environmental, economic and social currents of air quality on the people and places in our region.

Enlightening, visually riveting and at times hauntingly beautiful, “In the Air,” curated by Cohen and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Director Laura Domencic, compiles an album with multidimensional ways to picture the concerns, such as environmental — pollution’s effects on our environment — or economical — potential job losses. It references past (the Donora smog disaster in 1948), present (industrial emissions) and future (how about windmills as a solution?). It also makes air quality a universal issue: Backyard barbecues and fireworks are part of the problem.

Finally, “In the Air” does serve as a showcase for photography. So when it comes to observing some of the scenery, we might guilt-marvel at views of manmade wonders such as the giant smoke stacks not far from Rachel Carson’s birthplace in Springdale, and seeing the Pittsburgh cityscape at the Point can still look awesome — even on a hazy day.

photo by lynn johnson


“Air Quality Team.”
A small cadre of activists monitors air quality in the Cheswick and Springdale areas. They are supported by the local Sierra Club and a team of environmental scientists and graduate students from North Carolina State University. Marti Blake lives across the street from NRG Energy’s Cheswick Power Plant in Springdale and can see the stacks from her bedroom window. This summer she recorded data about weather and particulates gathered by instruments planted in residential neighborhoods around the community. On occasion, Dr. Viney Aneja, a professor of environmental technology at NCSU, and his team of graduate students led by Priya Pillai make the trek from North Carolina to carefully move the testing equipment from one secluded yard to another. Test results were due in fall of 2015.

photo by brian cohen


“Coal barge, Monongahela River.”
Coal barges such as this one, just east of Hazelwood, are a common sight on the Mon. Diesel fumes from road, rail and river traffic are a major source of air pollution in the river valleys of western Pennsylvania.


The Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock is part of the U.S. Steel Mon Valley Works that includes the Clairton Coke Works. It has been active since 1872.


“Oil cars, Kilbuck Run, near Sewickley.”
These cars — carrying plates numbered 1267, designating petroleum crude oil — were traveling east towards Pittsburgh. Diesel exhaust, including that emitted by trains, is a major source of air pollution in Pittsburgh.


The Conemaugh coal-fired power plant in Indiana County began operation in the early 1970s. Run by a subsidiary of GenOn Energy Inc., it burns more than 4 million tons of coal a year.

photos by Annie O’Neill

Donora Inversion: 1948
Rosemarie Iiams was a newly graduated pharmacist working in a local pharmacy in October 1948, when an inversion trapped a cloud of lethal smog in Donora. “We were extremely busy at the drug store with people wanting cough medicines and [had] an influx in prescriptions for pulmonary and breathing problems,” she says. While she believes the smog caused a terrible thing Donora, some good did come out of it — the federal government started to pay attention and the air-quality standards improved.

Alice Uhriniak worked as a switchboard operator in the telephone office of Donora in 1948. On one of the first and worst days of the inversion, she started her shift at 7 a.m. As soon as she got in the door, the women who worked the night turn said, “Hurry up, get your headset on, everybody is dying.” Uhriniak points out there was no 911 then; the local switchboard lit up with people calling doctors and the doctors trying to get people to the hospitals. As news spread, out-of-town relatives were calling in to get news.

Marie Gardner lived next to the zinc plant. She was 13 years old in October 1948 and was a housekeeper for one of the bosses of the mill. “I just thought it was just a heavy fog — F-O-G,” she says. “We never heard of smog. I remember having a sweet taste in my mouth from the air, and I remember walking home in that crap. But I don’t think it affected me much because I was young and did not smoke.”

Former Donora mayor Anthony Massafra takes credit for starting the slogan, “Clean air started here.” He was referring to the federal clean-air laws that started after the smog incident. He was 17 years old and a high-school senior at the time. It was during a Halloween parade on McKean Avenue that people started to realize something was wrong. He said they could hardly see the marchers in the parade, let alone the people across the street.

photos by scott goldsmith

A boy playing with fireworks in Bellevue. A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows July 4 fireworks temporarily increase particulate pollution by an average of 42 percent. The effect is worse in the Pittsburgh area because of trapped air due to inversions.

United Mine Workers member Floyd Macheska from West Newton and his grandson Stephen Macheska, 9, from Belle Vernon watch as 14 members of the United Mine Workers of America are arrested after refusing to move from the steps of the Federal Building. About 5,000 members of the UMWA marched to protest stricter pollution rules for coal-burning power plants proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Elizabeth Sandhagen lives in southern Allegheny County and says she must stay inside most of the time because of severe breathing problems. She uses a specialized inhaler and receives a monthly injection to keep her lung passages open. The drug — a strong antihistamine that can cause unexpected anaphylactic shock — is thick and must be administered via a large needle which is painful. Sandhagen says her respiratory problems dissipate significantly when she leaves western Pennsylvania. She believes the air particulates levels in Allegheny County are the cause of her problems.

Supporters of EPA regulations against power plant carbon emissions rally in front of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in downtown Pittsburgh on Thursday, July 31, 2014. 

photos by lynn johnson

“Ever-Present Stacks.”
Drive into working-class Cheswick, walk up the hill in Springdale, float past these communities on the Allegheny River — it doesn’t matter the vantage point — they all have in common one sight: the cooling stacks of the NRG coal-fired power plant. One of 800 NRG plants across the country, its stacks can be seen from the Goodwill store and the VFW Post, from Sheetz gas station and Glen’s Frozen Custard stand. They follow you like the eyes in a painting, around the room, around the town. The stacks’ footprint and breath are everywhere, from backyard pools and parks to the grit and grime on porches, windowsills, bedroom walls. Ever present like weather or air, they have become invisible to all but a few dedicated activists.


“Duquesne Court.” 
Approximately 30 families live here in Duquesne Court. They consider each other family. The modest homes were built in the 1920s, housing for local workers. Today the duplexes are home to working-class families and retirees. Relationships are fueled by gossip and neighborhood barbecues, gardens and shared childcare. They know each other’s patterns and ailments — [one] had thyroid cancer a few years ago, one neighbor has heart issues, another can’t breathe. Two couples have lost children to chronic illness and crib death. Most of the residents can’t afford to move. They are families starting out, retirees on fixed income and transplants that have lost their jobs and need a low rent refuge. Some are afraid to challenge NRG. Others are determined to protest its presence.

In the Air: Visualizing What We Breathe
Through Feb. 26. Pittsburgh Filmmakers Gallery, 477 Melwood Ave., Oakland
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