Andrea London has been a portrait photographer for 30 years. She works from her studio in the heart of Shadyside, where she shoots everyone – individuals and families – the same way: in black-and-white, on film, with a neutral backdrop. And she says she has always let her portraits speak for themselves.
But during the 2016 presidential campaign, letting the images do the talking came to seem inadequate.
“With the racism and hatred and xenophobia that began surfacing, and became much more common during the presidential election, and has gotten worse since then, I decided I could no longer let my portraits speak for me,” she says. “I started seeking out people who are often thought of as the other – members of the LGBT community, immigrants, refugees, people who are differently abled, the elderly.”
The result is “We Are All Related,” a two-part project that includes a gallery exhibition in downtown Pittsburgh and a public-art installation in East Liberty, both opening this weekend. While the shows draw on three decades of London’s work, she says, many of the dozens of images were shot in the past two-and-a-half years.
The portrait subjects represent a cross-section of area residents, with a wide variety of ages, skin colors, national origins and sexual identities: a transgender man, a family whose patriarch was recently deported, and a blind woman whose parents fought for her to attend a public grade school. One portrait is of a Nepalese refugee couple, recent immigrants who the first time she shot them were expecting twins; the second time she shot them, it was with their twin daughters, who were born American citizens.
“The theme of this project is that on some level of human experience that transcends who we are, what we look like, where we’re from, whom we worship or whom we love, that we are all connected on a very fundamental human level,” she says.
“The project is not about me, it’s not about the people in the photographs,” London adds. “It’s about all of us.”
The Downtown show, which opens Friday, will pack the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s 937 Liberty Gallery with 62 portraits ranging in height from 7 inches to more than 7 feet. There’s also a 16-minute video of portrait subjects telling their stories, and a tapestry that combines portions of images of their faces with samples of the clothes they were wearing when photographed – a literal “fabric of humanity,” says London.
The public-art installation consists of 53 portraits, each 8 feet tall, hung in the first-floor windows of a new but unoccupied commercial building on the corner of Penn and Centre avenues (across Penn from Target). Some of the images and subjects overlap with those in the gallery exhibit. The installation includes the words “We Are Related” in the 17 languages represented by the subjects.
London says she wanted to place the installation in East Liberty “because I feel that it is a community that has gone through a lot of difficult changes in the last number of years.”
Asked whether she was referring to the neighborhood’s gentrification, which has displaced many businesses and long-time African-American residents, London responded, “Inclusivity is the theme of this project.”
London says she consulted with community activists in East Liberty before proceeding with the installation. The window space was donated by Mosites Construction & Development Company. Other funders include The Opportunity Fund.
The installation officially opens with a free celebration Sunday at Penn and Centre, including food and live music. London adds, “A lot of the [portrait subjects] who are in the installation will be there to celebrate with us, and I’m looking forward to introducing them to the community.”
Both the exhibit and the installation will remain up through May 12. A book of the exhibition will be available at local bookstores, 937 Liberty, and online.