Paola Corso’s Photography and Poetry Find Life on Pittsburgh’s Vertical Bridges

by Matthew Benusa

Paola Corso’s book, “Vertical Bridges: Poems and Photographs of City Steps” (Six Gallery Press), explores her fascination with the public stairs built to navigate Pittsburgh demanding topography, alongside more personal reflections about family, community, and immigration.

“There are so many metaphors built into these steps,” Corso said at a recent photography showing at the Oakmont Branch of the Carnegie Library. She explained how the city’s outdoor staircases are many things: they are a blank canvas for art, an amphitheater for drama, and the place where Pittsburghers walk to get to work and school or just for leisure.

Paola Corso was born in Brackenridge, a little steel-town up the Allegheny River from the city. Her life in the region left a definite mark. Though Corso has lived in San Francisco and now resides in Brooklyn, she says she is still “an A-K Valley girl.” Pittsburgh is a constant inspiration and her work leaves a mark on this place, too. 

In Bob Regan’s 2004 book, “The Steps of Pittsburgh,” Regan says that the city’s outdoor stairs climb more than 24,000 feet. The City of Pittsburgh’s City Steps website says that there are more than 800 outdoor, public staircases, some of which have fallen into disrepair. But most of the public stairs are still in use and provide connection to some of the city’s hilliest neighborhoods. 

For Corso, the steps are emblematic of the relationships between people and their community. She sees her family in the stairs. The grandchild of Italian immigrants on both sides, she credits one grandfather, a stonemason, with building the steps that the other grandfather, a steelworker, took to work every day. Her own family history brings life to poured concrete and wooden planks. 

Corso is a poet and a visual artist. She learned about photography at her first adult job as a newspaper photographer. In the analog age, she used film and a darkroom. Now, many of Corso’s photographs take advantage of digital alteration–from simple decolorizing to more intensive manipulation resembling digital art.

With a family history in steel, it’s no wonder Corso finds herself frequently returning to Pittsburgh for inspiration. It is clear from the way that Corso talks about the city and the art community —  her time here is essential to her artistic spirit.

A mid-2010’s project, “Steppin Stanzas,” was an early manifestation of her interest in Pittsburgh’s steps. The performance art project mixed dance, music, and poetry, and it defined a central tenet of Corso’s artistic practice: art, imbued with community. Today, the project lives on in a documentary-style video.

“I hope I find an audience here,” Corso said, though she won’t have much trouble. Friends, family, and supporters packed the basement of the Oakmont Carnegie Library for an artist’s reception in early June. It’s clear Corso is leaving her mark on this community: collaborations, inspiration, and audience, blend together into her own city of Pittsburgh.

Paola Corso will read her poetry at the Heinz History Center on July 20th. 

Corso’s photography exhibit at the Oakmont Carnegie Library will be up through the end of June.