Thursday, June 16, 2011

Who is Alan F. Reiland?

Recently, I went in to Shaw Galleries, downtown, to see the photography exhibition "Forgotten Witness: The Long Lost Photographs of Pittsburgh Press Photographer Alan F. Rieland". If the arts & entertainment editor at CP can work it out, my article on the show will appear next week. Still waiting for confirmation. In truth, it's not really a review, although I do offer a little qualitative discussion on the power of the photos. Nevertheless, the article talks more about the mystery behind the photographs.

"Complaint Department (Self-Portrait)"
by Alan F. Reiland

image courtesy Kurt Shaw, Shaw Galleries
Who, exactly, is the Pittsburgh Press photographer Alan F. Reiland? He seems to have come from nowhere, left few historical traces, and died in obscurity.

But, wait. Let's back up and talk about how he was 're-discovered' at all. Reiland's 24 or so gelatin silver prints were first found on the floor of the Pittsburgh Press Building, where they had been for decades. They were almost thrown away during the merge with the Post-Gazette in 1992. But some astute soul rescued them, kept them for a decade and then sold them to someone else. This unknown someone-else had an estate sale in 2006. At this very estate sale, Shaw Gallery Owner Kurt Shaw saw them for the first time and purchased them (Please go see the show! It's up until June 30th!).

What appears in the exhibition are the prints (certainly, there are no negatives known to exist) still in their original cream-colored mats. These mats bear shoe prints and broad smudges of dirt. Remember, they were lying on the floor of the press building since the 1960s, so essentially, part of their physical history is also on display.

Shaw told me that in anticipation of the exhition, he'd done some research, attempting to track down Reiland over the previous five years. Based on Shaw's (and now my own) search of Social Security records, we know he was born in 1927 and died in Munhall, a borough adjacent to Homestead, on August 30, 1996. But when Shaw contacted neighbors in Munhall and a local upholstery company that goes by the name of Reiland, no one knew the man or even remembered him. Apparently, he had no surviving relatives.

I like a good mystery. And I'll admit that I've developed a fascination with Reiland over the past days, since I spoke with Kurt Shaw and saw the photographs. How can a man appear and disappear, just like that? Certainly there have to be census records, payroll records. Did the man bud, fully formed, from someone's head or perhaps land from the sky? Well, I finally signed up for, and I got more information: his social security number, his old phone number, and two separate residence addresses. But that's about it. There's no evidence of co-habitation with anyone, no evidence of children, no evidence that he ever had a father or mother. In fact, before 1983, there seems to be no mention of him at all, unless he changed his name from Alaric, which I suppose is entirely possible. Yet Alan's birth date is firm, while Alaric's carries the dubious 'about' designation and is a year later than Alan's. So, the mystery continues.

Next week, I plan to do some more investigating at the Carnegie Library's Pennsylvania Room, where I'll scan a specific part of the microfilm collection. In the meantime, I've included a picture above, a staged picture that he took. It is intended as a self-portrait and suggests his sense of humor. Its title, of course, is "Complaints Department".

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