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  • Pennsylvania, History, Photography (1959–2005):A Portfolio
  • Robert Ginsberg (bio)

I had not thought of myself as a Pennsylvania photographer.

William Pencak, editor of Pennsylvania History, my colleague for nineteen years and friend for thirty, invited me to contribute a portfolio of my Pennsylvania work to the special issue on photography that Linda A. Ries was planning. A genial and gifted polymath, Pencak had worked together with me on many projects in semiotics, law, literature, and American history. I reviewed my collection of 10,000 slides to see if I might offer a selection.

I discovered that I was a Pennsylvania photographer.

Bill did not get to see the results. He died December 9, 2013.

I was a Pennsylvanian from 1963 to 1972, living in the Philadelphia area. From 1972 to 2002, I commuted from my Maryland home outside of Washington, DC, to Pennsylvania to complete my thirty-five years at Penn State. During 500,000 miles as commuter, I repeatedly re-entered Pennsylvania, seeing it in new light.

Brimming with its heritage, Pennsylvania attracts the visitor’s camera eye. Follow the guidebook to the attractions! That is your duty as tourist, proclaims the state. Take your obligatory shots. You cannot miss them. History packaged as tourism. [End Page 517] The postcard, the brochure, the magazine, the poster, the video. That is the substance out of which history is made. Before we have seen the sights, we have already seen them.

Crisscrossing the state, as a photographer I had not been taking shots, an aggressive, possessive frame of mind. Instead, I have been taken by moments, experiences that stop me, hold me, and open me to something in the world, something I had missed. Photography not as a calculated art of accurate depiction of a notable object, but as an unanticipated act of subjectivity, a fresh dwelling in the world, a togetherness of subject with subject. Mutual disclosure. My photography deals not with the seen/scene. The unseen deals with me. Photography, though it peers through viewfinders and converts large objects to small prints, is always an enlargement. An enlargement of the heart.

Carrying about a camera, I found myself invited to become accessible to the world. So that I could be found by something that might make me more sensitive, attentive, appreciative, responsive, responsible. Photography as inducement to growth. Introduction to experience. Exploration of the environment. Initiation to the innerment.

The magnificent state capitol at Harrisburg promotes itself across the wide and often wild Susquehanna River (fig. 1). The edge of the developed East, officiously drawing itself up, facing the challenging lands of the West. The site invites the sight. A capital location.

Philadelphia makes its residents and visitors feel at home in a European past. Consider its acropolis in Fairmount Park, crowned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a majestic Parthenon of French Impressionist treasures. At the bottom of this “Fair Mount,” along the Schuylkill River, extend the Greco-Roman structures of the nineteenth-century waterworks (fig. 2).

Philadelphia’s grand cultural boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, running from the foot of the Art Museum to City Hall in Center City, replicates the Champs-Élysées of Paris. Philadelphia’s version, studded with statuary and memorials, has its own Rodin Museum, central Fountain of the Three Rivers (cf. La Place de la Concorde), Free (public) Library and Court House, echoing the eighteenth-century Naval Ministry and the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, and the recently relocated Barnes Foundation with its treasures of French Impressionism.

At Philadelphia’s central focal point of Market and Broad Streets stands its distinctive City Hall (fig. 14), a late nineteenth-century imitation of the [End Page 518] Paris City Hall. It is topped with a statue of William Penn, the city’s founder, hat on head and hand in a gesture of welcome, peace, blessing, or assertion that this is the place for a peaceable kingdom of brotherly love. The City Hall tower was long the highest edifice in Philadelphia, historic landmark for ships coming in from the ocean. In the 1980s, it was unceremoniously dwarfed by massive skyscrapers. Relegated to history.

The celebrated Academy of Music on Broad Street, now the...


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