June 21, 2022

Strength Amidst Oppression: Photographing Black History and Life in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia

In Hannah Price’s hands, documentation of historic places is an artistic endeavor. One of the 2021 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Fellows, Price’s project focused on the documentation of Action Fund projects in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, including the homes of August Wilson, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Joe Frazier’s Gym.

As a photographic artist and filmmaker, Price’s work focuses on chronicling relationships, race politics, and ideas around misperception—asking those viewing her images and films to assess and reassess inherent biases, adjusting their own perspectives.

Price said that “for this fellowship I wanted to show how strong these buildings are in the midst of an oppressive past and present. I also didn’t want to forget the people that legends, like Paul Robeson, stood up for. So with the structures in this series I [also] included portraits of the people who currently walk in the neighborhoods of these iconic Black legends.”

Take a look at Price’s remarkable images and hear directly from her about her process of documenting these historic sites.

Exterior of a house from the street. There is a small garden in the front with a set of stairs leading up to the door.

photo by: Hannah Price

Exterior of Paul Robeson's House in Philadelphia.

Tell us about your approach to documenting these particular sites.

At first, I wanted to create something clever with the particular history of the sites, but I found myself doing what I always do with my work: generalizing our political Black history and documenting. And so, I decided to chase the weather and use it as an oppressive symbol. I specifically chose a time before a moment of rain or dark clouds hovering over the structures. This allowed me to pop them with a flash to give it shine in the midst of "distressed weather." Doing this allowed me to talk about the past in a visual way.

A old fashioned phone sitting on a round table in front of the wrought iron railing on the stairs.

photo by: Hannah Price

Detail view of Marian Anderson's Phone.

A portrait of Paul Robeson against a pale green wall with a set of stairs on the left hand side.

photo by: Hannah Price

Interior of Paul Robeson's House.

What were some of the challenges you faced as you did this work?

Traffic in Philadelphia was a challenge. All but Marian Anderson’s house was on a busy street. I invested in cones and had to use a ladder to get above the cars. In Pittsburgh it was hard to predict the weather and had lot of stakeouts, waiting for the perfect moment to photograph. My assistant and I waited the whole day for the photograph of the National Negro Opera Company House (NNOCH). The weather I wanted was happening, but it never stood above NNOCH, they mostly had a clear sky.

However, the condition of the NNOCH obviously shows how it was almost too late to save such a structure.

A man standing in front of a white wall wearing a brown rain jacket over a brown shirt and a brown hat.

photo by: Hannah Price

Rodney in front of Joe Fraizer’s Gym, which he remembers attending in the past.

A woman sitting in a folding chair, one hand crossed over holding her shoulder in a ping sweatshirt and a pint winter cap.

photo by: Hannah Price

Crystal, North West Philadelphia.

What was it about these individuals that attracted you to them for your portraits?

For the most part, I was attracted to these individuals, because they were in the area. James was sitting outside with his friend Ron just above the hill behind the New Granada Theater. I thought they looked great, so I asked to take their photograph. I saw Sandra when I had an appointment with someone else, but they never showed. Her photograph worked out perfectly, because the next day someone had mowed the field. Crystal is a friend of someone who lives next door to John Coltrane’s house.

Rodney walked right by me when I was waiting near Joe Frazier’s gym.

Why was it important to you to interact with the community members themselves?

I think it was because I started on The Hill District in Pittsburgh. August Wilson’s House, The New Granada Theater, The Crawford Grill were all in proximity of each other. I frequently hung out at Grandma B’s, a breakfast place on The Hill and it’s fun to learn from people in the neighborhood. It’s a great environment. And there is an interesting contrast between historical objects and life.

A woman standing in a field of purple flowers wearing a bright red dress with white piping along the sleeves and the edges.

photo by: Hannah Price

Sandra, across the street of The New Granada Theater in The Hill District in Pittsburgh.

A man sitting in a green folding chair. He is wearing a black hat with a red P and a black and red shirt.

photo by: Hannah Price

James up on The Hill in Pittsburgh.

Out of all the photographs you took, is there one that really stands out to you?

Sandra’s red dress reminds me of August Wilson’s play "Seven Guitars". When I saw her, my mind went straight there.

What did you find to be the most valuable part of this fellowship?

The access to August Wilson’s house was really cool to experience. I—along with board members of the museum—got to see the space before renovation. We found old newspaper and wallpaper. The space of the apartment really tells of the time Wilson and his family grew up in. Last, I loved learning about Paul Robeson’s legacy.

Exterior of a brick building with the ground floor windows and doors boarded up.

photo by: Hannah Price

The back of the New Granada Theatre in Pittsburgh.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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