Off The Wall: Hannah Altman talks Identity, Richmond, and The House We Build

April 2, 2018

Hannah Altman is only 22 years old and already she is one of Pittsburgh’s most honest and most self reflective photographers. Although originally from New Jersey, Altman came to the Steel City to attend school at Point Park University. Before ultimately majoring in photography because she enjoyed the fine arts, she initially chose Point Park because of their photojournalism program. Unlike other schools that require students to spend two years in general arts classes, such as drawing and painting, Altman enjoyed that Point Park throws students into their field of study beginning in their first year on campus. As a freshman, Altman began in a Black and White photography class and fell in love with the process and decided that is what she wanted to do.


During her time in Pittsburgh, Altman has made a name for herself within the photography community.


Altman started showing her work publicly when she was a junior in high school in Philadelphia. Since then she has shown her work all over Pittsburgh, including at the Pulp House, an exhibition space that was started by Altman herself. In love with the idea of pop ups and following an interest in curating, Altman wanted a space to display not only her work, but the work of local artists as well.  


“I’m just impressed by other people so much, so I’ll put a lot of ceramics [artists] in there, I’ll do a lot of installation art because I don’t have the brain for that, but it’s really great to see other artists doing it.”


Throughout her career, Altman has focused on themes of femininity and identity. In her exhibition, Construct of Viewpoint, she has taken self portraits and printed them on various fabrics and textiles. In doing this she explained, 


“I think there’s a long history of being shut out as female artists. So I like to really address that idea in my work and make sure that my identity is known. And what I like about printing on domestic textiles is that there’s a direct line between who took the picture and what you’re looking at. But at the same time they feel sort of separate, more like a documentation as opposed to a personal narrative. It’s less raw and personal and more like they’re just body parts. There’s a kind of disconnect, which I like. It’s interesting.”


Since the age of 16 when she first began self portraiture, Altman isn’t quite sure where her desire to explore femininity and identity came from. What she does know, however, is that the amount she can learn is endless. In exploring “societal structure, aiming to navigate the dependencies between body image, perception, and environment”, as explained on her website, Altman has found that preaching her message doesn’t change much within the echo chamber of the liberal arts educational background she comes from. In working with the themes and ideas that she has, Altman has learned to explain herself better.


“You can’t be pretentious about it. If your dad asks what you’re doing, you have to explain in a way that he would understand. And sometimes you have four seconds until someone’s not interested because they’re not an artist, so you can’t be using artspeak. Being clear and concise with communication is always super important. And I’m still learning that too.”


Having graduated from Point Park, now Altman is moving to Richmond to attend graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University. There she will be pursuing her master’s degree and continuing to further her photography education. But part of her will always be grateful to have had the experiences she did in Pittsburgh.


“I’m super lucky that literally the first day I moved here, I fell into a bunch of friends who are all artists themselves and they do a bunch of different things so we’re all just sharing what we’re working on and working with each other to figure it out. I also like that Pittsburgh is small enough where its super easy to go to openings and introduce yourself to people and have it not be overwhelming and not like it’s a cool contest because Pittsburgh’s kinda ‘not cool’ but in a good way.”


For her final show in Pittsburgh, called The House We Build, Altman and other local photographers focus on themes of various relationships, whether with one’s family, significant other, or even with oneself.


“Rebekah Depretis takes photographs of youth, like young kids. They’re fleeting beautiful moments that the kids are unaware that they’re beautiful because they’re eight. Gray Swartzel, who is getting his MFA at CMU, takes a lot of self portraits with his mom as characters. Unlike Rebekah, they’re super performative and done in a studio. Madison Turiczek does portraits with her family, but they’re a little more natural, in her grandma’s house. I think she got some old photos from when she was digging through family archives too. Brandon Hawkins is a gay black man who photographs gay black couples. It’s a very specific gaze, it’s just so good. All of the artists are so sick, so I’m really excited about it [The House We Build].”


To put on a show like this, and like many others Altman has done with Pulp House, she says it’s a slow process, but not one she can do alone.


“It’s a slow burner for sure, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I didn’t text my group chat and say ‘I need a car to pick up alcohol, I need someone to please help me hang things’. Everyone’s been super helpful with that.”


In terms of coming up with the overall theme for the show, Altman explains how the show comes to be, from impetus to opening.


“Usually the idea comes first, or I’ll be thinking ‘Well what does a show look like that addresses familial relationships or love?’. Then once the idea is sorta planted in my brain, I start hunting for artists. I go to a lot of openings, I talk to people and I ask ‘Do you know any artists who make work like this or about this subject?’. And that’s how I ended up finding the artists for this show.”


Altman has shown her work all over the country, from LA to NYC to Pittsburgh, and soon she’ll be moving to Richmond to see how the South inspires her next.


“I’ve only been there [Richmond] once, but I liked it a lot. Something I really like about Pittsburgh is it has a billion neighborhoods that all have a main street and Richmond was like that too. For some reason, that really comforts me. There’s a main street by campus, I think it’s called East Broad St. I happened to go for a quick open house during a gallery crawl so I got to see all the galleries that were along the same few streets and then I would walk off and it would all be quieter residential areas and I love that vibe.”


As much of her work is self reflective on her own identity and femininity, Altman reflected on her own growth as an artist and as a person. From her start as a teenager to now moving to graduate school, she has a few things that her younger self should know.


“Stop trying to make things better than they are. If you’re a freshman and you’re thinking about an idea, it’s not the best yet. Like Construct of Viewpoint [Altman’s show at The Union Hall], I could keep going with it. It doesn’t feel like it’s final form. But when you’re 18 and you make something that doesn’t suck, you’re like ‘This is it, I’m the best!’”


She elaborated by discussing many young artists’ obsession with social media.

“Stop posting so much on the internet. 18 year olds are all really into Instagram and they’ll post all their early art and you don’t need to. You’re just learning how to do things, you really don’t need to do that.”


When asked if she had advice for young photographers, Altman said,


“You have to separate the good from the bad images. I hate when people say ‘Photo’s dead’ because of the IPhone and that makes no sense to me because you have to think about intent of images. Some pictures are just taken with an IPhone and it was made just for documentation purposes or social sharing purposes. Not everything is made for fine art, but if you’re interested in fine art photography, you sort out what’s art and what’s not. That’d be the advice I give, sort stuff out.”


If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then this article is worth just one of Hannah Altman’s many photos that make up her various collections. This still young artist has incredible artistic vision, but is also self aware enough to know that she is not finished.The House We Build will be opening at Imagebox on April 6 from 6-9pm. Go see for yourself the artist she is now before she becomes the artist she will be.







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