By MARTY LEVINE
Pitt boasts a lot of bests and firsts, but few remember that Pitt was the first American university to teach a course in photography — photojournalism, to be exact — in January 1935.
The first class of 15 worked in the studio of instructor Luke Swank, on the 14th floor of the Cathedral of Learning, since Chancellor John Bowman had earlier hired Swank to be Pitt’s official photographer. In the Cathedral, students performed lab work — developing and printing pictures using the giant equipment of the day. Pittsburgh and Pitt were their main subjects.
“He plans to conduct the class,” the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph reported, “with a minimum of theory and a maximum of practical work. Instead of lectures, he explains, he hopes to enlist downtown news cameramen to meet with the class for informal ‘question and answer’ discussion.
“He began to snap pictures 40 years ago as a hobby,” the paper says of Swank, “and swiftly acquired nationwide fame as one of America’s foremost photographers. From a spare time hobby, he expanded his talent into a full time business. Steel companies, railroads, and airways have purchased his pictures.” Local industry in Johnstown and Pittsburgh were among Swank’s earliest subjects.
This praise was not mere puffery on the part of the paper. Although Swank was quick to deny that he was an artist — and that photography was the equal of the other fine arts — critics strongly disagreed. Reviews of exhibits Swank had secured for his work in the years just before and during his class — in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in Berlin and Monza, Italy, and right here in Pittsburgh — compared him to the most famed bulb-poppers of his day: Edward Steichen, Margaret Bourke-White and Alfred Stieglitz.
Swank’s outsized affection for the city could not help but endear him to local critics. As the Pittsburgh Press remarked about his 1934 exhibit at Carnegie Tech: “Many of the photographs reveal originality and strength in composition, while a number are extraordinary in design. Several Pittsburgh scenes are shown, particularly of the wholesale section on Penn Avenue, which Mr. Swank thinks has a resemblance to Paris.”
Born in Johnstown in 1890, Swank bore some resemblance to Oliver Hardy, down to the mustache, and had spent his life working in cattle breeding, police dog training and in the family’s hardware store. Just before coming to Pitt, he had run a car dealership in his hometown.
“Sometime during 1930,” says a review of his last exhibit, in 1980, “officials of Bethlehem Steel, looking over Swank’s weekend snapshots of their mill, offered to buy some of them.” Eventually he was placing photos in the top outlets of the day: Vogue, House and Garden, Fortune, Life, and the New York Times.
There had been photography courses in the “Academy of Science and Art of Pittsburg” as early as 1900, which had resulted in a “public entertainment,” the papers said, featuring lantern slides in the Carnegie Institute lecture hall. But Swank set his University students snapping their shutters locally and held a Pitt amateur photographers contest. The winners were displayed in room 1428 of the Cathedral of Learning, including a student portrait of “steam spouting past the open jaws of the steam shovel digging the Foster Memorial excavation near the Cathedral,” the press reported.
There would be no fancy ‘30s version of Photoshop for Luke Swank and his students: “The photograph should never, except in a few very specialized cases, be modified by any kind of hand work,” he preached. “Modern equipment and materials have rendered this unnecessary.
“The camera can do one thing supremely well — portray textures,” he said. “The photographer should leave the intellectual phases of picture making to the artist. Basically, photography should be an amusement — and a very grand one.’”
Swank, noted one Post-Gazette article, “takes out his graf-flex, speeds up his lens to full-sun, and starts out for the countryside. … Now some of the brothers of the bulb-and-plate go in heavily for trick papers, double exposures, arty baths, but Swank is content to let sun and shadow do his work for him, assisting nature, of course, through an adroit tipping of the camera, or nicely getting things out of proportion. …
“When he finishes with his circus etudes” — Swank loved following the circus when it came to town — “he goes batting around Soho, kodaking as he goes, and comes down with crazy houses in crazy lines. … To be thoroughly modernistic, he makes a still life of a (shop) window full of holy statues along side of a crate of unholy vegetables. Pots and pans make a project, a dilapidated shredded basket makes an arrangement, a spare tire and a wire can make a stunning still life, as he goes around the town snapping the bizarre, baroque and burlesque.”
Promoting the craft of news photography, Swank explained that photogs “must take things as they find them. There is no fake about their work. That’s what makes their pictures so interesting.’”
The class lasted only three years, when Swank was laid off in an economic move, but he continued to lecture and exhibit at Pitt and in town and elsewhere. He parlayed his work into commissions from Edgar J. Kaufmann, to take portraits of Kaufmann’s new Fallingwater home and run contests and lectures through his department store, and from H.J. Heinz II, to take glamour shots of his products. He took half the 416 photos in “The Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania,” a 1936 publication from the Buhl Foundation, which covered buildings built before 1860 in 27 Western Pennsylvania counties.
Swank lived with his family in his studio at 536 Penn Ave. and died in 1944 at age 54. His photos — close ups of the curved lamps on a local bridge, of a broom resting on a porch, of circus workers scrambling to make repairs — live on as part of the photo library at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and in a 2005 University of Pittsburgh Press book, “Luke Swank: Modernist Photographer” by Howard Bossen.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.