Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Perspective": My Interview With Photographer Duane Rieder

Duane Rieder's Engine House no. 25
    The stories written about the downturned economy are numerous, and seemingly everybody has been adversely affected or knows someone who has been damaged in some way by the nation’s economic decline in recent years. As with all stories that involve a test of wills, however, there are those who find a way to not only survive, but to excel. One such character in this story, Duane Rieder, has come out of the recession as a sort of Renaissance man. He owns a winery, a photography business, the Roberto Clemente Museum (which contains the world’s largest collection of memorabilia dedicated to the Pittsburgh Pirates legend and Puerto Rican hero), and hosts parties of all kinds, all within his multi-purpose studio, Engine House No. 25. Through his 27 years in the photography business, he has met some of the biggest names in music and sports, and has documented moments in time for some of the most prominent companies in the country, including United Airlines, ESPN, UPMC, Nationwide Insurance, and Mellon Bank. And if history proves to be an accurate precursor of things to come, his plans don’t stop there.

    Sitting at Sherlock’s in Erie last Saturday, eagerly awaiting a performance by the Pittsburgh rock band, The Clarks, I spied a bottle of wine sitting on a merchandise table, upon which was printed a picture of the band, as well as a familiar logo which read “Engine House no. 25”. This singular bottle of wine encapsulated much of what makes Mr. Rieder tick, a mashed and fermented blend of his passion for winemaking and his considerable skill as a photographer. “Technically, it’s not my wine anymore. I took the picture on the bottle and used to make the wine, itself, but now it belongs to a former partner,” says the photographer. It would seem an odd leap, from photography to winemaking, yet he found a natural connection between the ability to make wine to fulfill a passion while also using the bottles to promote his art through the pictures on the labels.

    But why, exactly has he diversified so much in recent years, from a successful photography studio to so much more? “The business has changed...three-hundred and sixty percent,” he says, with a tone that suggests the enormity of the transformation. “I was lucky that I got in at a good time. In the early 90’s, business was booming. I would expect $5,000 for a shoot, and a company would pay $10,000. Nowadays, I could expect $5,000 and get $500”. When asked why this is, he tells it like it is: “the economy isn’t so good, and with the perfection of the digital camera, it seems everybody thinks they’re a photographer. Within a company, why come to me when you have people who will take pictures for free?”. But Mr. Rieder keeps a remarkably positive attitude about the current state of the advertising photography business. “I gave a tour of my studio to some photography students earlier today,” he said during our interview last night. “One of the main things I tried to stress to these kids is that you have to keep everything in perspective”. While the photography business may never again see the boom it experienced in the 1990’s, a time in which he says Pittsburgh was one of the top advertising cities in the country, one can ever truly predict the future. This lack of predictability rings especially true for another subject that is extremely personal to him: Lawrenceville.

    The town of Lawrenceville, much like Mr. Rieder’s business, has changed significantly since the native of St Mary’s, Pennsylvania purchased Engine House no. 25, an impressively remodeled fire house, whose history dates all the way back to 1896. Founded in 1814 by William Barclay Foster, father of American composer Stephen Foster, Lawrenceville has seen some hard times in the past few decades. Once the home of the Allegheny Arsenal, a supply and manufacturing center for the Union during the Civil War, as well as several mills, Lawrenceville found itself in considerable disrepair after the decline of Pittsburgh’s steel industry. But, as Dr. Abby Mendelson, a lecturer at Chatham University wrote in his 1998 book, “Pittsburgh: A Place In Time”, “Rehabilitation and reuse is the game now, and Lawrenceville has learned to play it extremely well”. 

    “I was the first person to go to Lawrenceville,” explains Rieder about his role in reshaping the neighborhood, with pride. “They wanted me to come in and be a sort of role model for what could be. I opened up officially in 1996, at the beginning of the movement. There were nights where my lights would be the only ones on in town”. But now, 17 years later, that has changed. “We do all sorts of things in [the studio]. We’ve held town hall meetings, shown off the building to potential investors in the area, allowed them to see what could be done, and help them get grants and funding”. Nowadays, the studio isn’t the only building in  the neighborhood with its lights on at night, but rather, it has blended in with the sea of lights from the many newly opened restaurants and other businesses that have joined the movement of which he has been a part since the beginning.    

Mr. Rieder’s story of perseverance and determination does not run parallel only with that of his adopted neighborhood of Lawrenceville, but also with a man known to virtually all Pittsburghers, Major League Baseball hall of famer, Roberto Clemente, whose family has become very close with Rieder. From the beginning of his career as a Pittsburgh Pirate until his untimely death in a mission to bring relief to the earthquake-ravaged Nicaraguan capital, Managua, Clemente was often reviled by the local media. Portrayed as a weak-willed foreigner with a poor grasp on the English language, reporters often resorted to quoting him exactly as he spoke, in order to make him seem less intelligent than his English-speaking, and frankly, white teammates. Yet, Clemente used that negative attention to fuel his outstanding skills as a baseball player, earning four National League batting titles, 12 Gold Glove awards, 12 appearances as a National League all-star, and was named the World Series MVP in 1971, before his death in a plane crash in 1972, making him one of the most decorated athletes in MLB history, and a hero to many in Latin America.

When asked how it is that Rieder became so close to the Clemente family, the answer was, as could be expected, photography. “I was asked in 1994 to do a calendar full of pictures of Clemente. I went to his house in Puerto Rico, and found that a lot of the photos of him had been damaged by water, from hurricanes and humidity. I retouched the photos for the family, preserving them, and was named his official archivist in 1996”. From that point, he began accumulating photos and memorabilia of the superstar, though the idea of setting up the museum didn’t come up to the plate until 2006, when the Pirates hosted the MLB all-star game. Due to the legend’s prominent role in Pittsburgh baseball history, the Clemente family was present, and decided to hold a party for the event. The family asked that Rieder host the party in his studio, and it was decided that the building would undergo a bit of a makeover, transforming the ground floor from a studio into a room dedicated to the Puerto-Rican star. From there, the ball started rolling, and the Clemente museum was born. 

When asked about the family’s role in the museum, he says that they have allowed him to use Clemente’s name, something that the MLB has been unwilling to do in the decades since his death. Clemente’s likeness has been used countless times by the MLB and the Pittsburgh Pirates, while his family, including his widow, Vera, has struggled to pay the bills, receiving very little in the form of compensation for Clemente's contribution to the continued success of the league. Aside from spreading knowledge and love for one of baseball’s true legends, Mr. Rieder aims to assist the Clementes as much as he can. “There are a lot of things in the museum that are on loan from the family, which I do to help them out. The MLB and the Pirates take so much from them without giving back. There are lawyers duking things out right now over who owns the Clemente name,” he says, though he respectfully does not elaborate on the subject. It is clear, however, that the issue is one that is important to Rieder, not only as a person who grew up a fan of Clemente, but perhaps more importantly as a close friend of the family.

From photography and winemaking, to curating a museum and helping give new life to a community that many had once counted out, as well as working his hardest to raise his family, Duane Rieder has become a central figure in the constantly-evolving stories of many, whether it is known to some of them or not. Though a large part of his life is dedicated to capturing images as they were at a singular moment in time, his emphasis on moving on with the times shows that he realizes life isn’t a simple freeze-frame shot. “I diversified after the economy declined, and split my time 4 ways now, between the photography, wine, museum, and party business,” he tells me toward the end of our interview. “The photography is still going strong, and I have a few national clients still, including Dick’s Sporting Goods and UPMC, but there’s more to it now”. When asked how he does it, his answer is simple. “I’m a hard worker. We build all of our sets ourselves, and we do all the photo editing in-house”. Perhaps, though, the answer for why he has been able to not only survive in the photography business but to flourish might just be one that can only be obtained by seeing as much as he has in his career: “perspective”.

One of his most popular photographs, taken during the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers Season