Car parked in overgrown bushes behind a house.

Continental Kit, Lawrenceville, 2018. Photo: Mark Clowney

A Son Reckons with His Father’s Past Lives

As long as I can remember, I’ve thought about my father as more a ghost than an actual human being. He was always around in some sense, but rarely present in the physical form. For 35 years, he worked a miserable overnight job at a UPS sorting facility. This sacrifice allowed my brothers and me opportunities in life that we have always been grateful for, but as a child, he wasn’t much more than a mystery to me. Evidence of his existence was always scattered around our home and he’d materialize on the weekends, yet to me he was little more than the man who slept in the attic and the embodiment of the corporal punishment found at the end of my mother’s threats.

I have no memories of my father, Richard Clowney, socializing with anyone, in any way, much less him having had anyone he may have considered a friend. In contrast, my father was flirtatious to a fault. As a child I was confused as to how someone with zero friends could feel compelled to greet every woman he saw on the street. He was friendly. The kind of guy who remembered things about people and recited those things as proof of a new connection; charming people came easily to him. He seemed to possess an uncanny ability to extract information from strangers, while simultaneously offering nothing particularly defining about himself. He was a natural observer and an enigma to most.

The fragments of my father’s past lives offered what little I do know about him. There were drum sets, vintage road bicycles, a full carpentry workshop, and an immense collection of Magic the Gathering memorabilia.

After his death in 2012, I sought out hundreds of my father’s old 35mm negatives that were stored in a makeshift basement darkroom of an old family home. These objects were the only connection to the lives he had lived before fatherhood; they were known, but never shared.

Again, the years progressed and the effects of alcoholism and neglected mental health began to catch up. Most of the memories I had of my father slipped away, and what I was doing with my own life wouldn’t have made him very proud. Julie was now the mother of my child. It was not until the realities of my own parental obligations began to weigh on me, that I reached the initial stages of sobriety. Julie put a camera into my hands to keep me occupied and something clicked. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Memories of carrying around a bag full of film for my dad on our yearly Christmas card outings came rushing back. The whirs of his old Minolta 7000’s distinctively audible autofocus filled my ears and I was hooked. Gradually, I became more comfortable with film and my own photography. I began documenting my life as a way to create continuity. I had amassed so many fractured pieces of myself while swinging from one codependent relationship to another. The ever-changing cast of characters that came along with them were also fractured, disappearing. Photography gave me the ability to share memories with myself when the people I once loved had vanished. I shot obsessively and began scanning my work into a computer for easier referencing and sharing.

Portrait of a man and woman standing by the river, industrial building on the far bank behind them. Man on the street in suit and fedora stares intensely at camera.
Four college-aged students stand in a courtyard outside.
Closeup of man in suit Man and woman on motorcycle.
Clockwise from top left: Couple, Point State Park, ca. 1970s; Grumpy man, Downtown Pittsburgh, ca. 1970s; Group of Weirdos, Gateway Center, Downtown Pittsburgh, ca. 1970s; Man and woman on motorcycle, Point State Park, ca. 1970–75; Barber, Hill District, ca. 1970s. Photos: Richard Clowney

Eventually, my newfound obsession with film scanning brought me back to my father’s negative collection. I dove headfirst into digitizing as much of his massive archive as I could get my hands on. The similarities I found in our work excited me while also making it painfully clear just how much of my father had rubbed off on me. The vast majority of his photos are tasteful nudes and street photography in Pittsburgh and New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Rarely will you find men in either of our photos. It’s possible I’ve become the same flirtatious loner that made me cringe as a child. The landmarks are consistent, finding ourselves drawn to the same quirky neighborhoods. Our photos made me marvel at the continuity within it all; the human experience passed down through genes.

Two young girls in white dresses run down the middle of a street, cars are parked on the side and houses are visible in the background.
Man in shorts, high socks, and a windbreaker jacket stands on stage holding a microphone by his side, a projector screen on a brick wall is behind him. Person with white sheet on dressed as ghost, stands on a sidewalk next to a white picket fence.
Two men, one with his back to the camera holding a plastic cup and the other staring at the camera with a cigarette in his hand wearing a Boston band t-shirt, stand inside a darkly lit room.
Clockwise from top: Amaia and Addie, May Day Parade, Polish Hill, 2018; Ghost, Halloween, Polish Hill, 2018; Poison, Hot Mass, Pittsburgh, 2018. Live From The City, Homestead, 2017. Photos: Mark Clowney

It seems obvious to me that we both make attempts to exploit the candid moments of the mundane to tell a story, but our actual practices couldn’t have been more different. The similarities of our photography end at the content within. My father’s negatives are all meticulously organized by number and titled for future reference. In contrast, I store my negatives in shoe boxes with no particular order. Chaos is really the only unifying theme in my collection. My father was a man of the times who relished modernity. His collection of tools in all of his pursuits were always top notch. I’m a luddite to a detrimental degree and for the most part I’m still using those same (now antiquated) tools 40 years later. More than anything it just felt like my father’s ghostly presence was still around, even if only in his photographs.

Franco Harris poses for a photo with three children
Woman on the street with a long wool jacket and a handbag on her arm stares closely into a department store window. Woman with a jacket and hat on holds a brown paper shopping bag and a sign that says
Four girls laying on grass in park.
African American man with receding hairline stands with hands in backpockets, necktie undone. Small child riding on a playground spring animal.
Top to bottom, left to right: Franco Harris, ca. 1970s; Window Shopper, Downtown Pittsburgh, ca. 1970s; Grandmother at Anti-War Protest, Point State Park, early 1970s; Pyramid Girls, Point State Park, ca. 1970s; Man looking at camera, Point State Park, early 1970s; Little Boy on Rocker, Anderson Playground, Oakland, 1978; Photos: Richard Clowney

Photography helped me remove some barriers I placed between my dad the patriarch, my father the myth, and the human being I’ve come to know as Richard Clowney. I believe both my father and I used photography as a way to embrace isolation in the company of others, while simultaneously creating a reliable and accessible account of everything we value as individuals. The camera is a tool to both remove ourselves from being a part of the group while still providing us access to it’s secrets. Photography has enabled me to more clearly put together the pieces of my father’s life, and to leave behind a puzzle of my own to maybe be pieced together by my daughter one day.

Young girl swims underwater in a pool.
A woman rides a motorcycle with a shirtless man on the back holding a fist in the air, in front of a brick building 1980s-era car overgrown with weeds.
Man crouches down in the middle of a street during a street fair, two people by his side are partially in the frame.
In a dark room a woman stares into the cameras next to a shirtless man holding phone. Two men in American flag shorts wear t-shirts and hats with fake fox ears attached, they stand in front of a cart with stuffed animal foxes and signs that say
Woman swimming in a pool, shot taken form underwater and shows legs, torso, and arms.
Top to bottom, left to right: Amaia Swims, West Penn Pool, Polish Hill, 2018; Motorcycle Boyz, The Button, Pittsburgh, 2017; Continental Kit, Lawrenceville, 2018; Scooter, Oktoberfest, Canonsburg, 2018; Spiffed Up, Hot Mass, Pittsburgh, 2019; Twinsburg Foxes, Twinsburg, Ohio, 2017; All the Arms We Need, West Penn Pool, Polish Hill, 2018; Photos: Mark Clowney

About this Series

Photo Essay foregrounds the work of both emerging and established photographers whose images examine the social, cultural, and political landscape in Pittsburgh and beyond.