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Rial: No Plans to Stop Capturing Images of City

Pulitzer-winning leader of McKeesport Community Newsroom reflects on career

By Tom Leturgey
The Tube City Almanac
July 05, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Martha Rial leads the McKeesport Community Newsroom project of Point Park University. The group’s writing workshop will hold a reading at Carnegie Library of McKeesport on July 20. (Tube City Almanac file photo)

“You never know that you got the right shot, because you can’t see it,” said Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Martha Rial. “The shutter snaps.”

That was one of the takeaways from a presentation from the Regent Square resident as she discussed the “challenges and joys” of her 40 years as professional and one of the most highly regarded photographers in Pittsburgh. The hour-long review of her career was held by the Women’s Press Club of Pittsburgh at Point Park University in June.

In addition to her own work as a photojournalist, Rial also teaches photography at local universities and is currently the program director for the McKeesport Community Newsroom, a citizen journalism initiative for high school students and adults, funded by Point Park.

The group Rial leads in McKeesport, Tube City Writers, will hold its next public reading at 6:30 p.m. July 20 at Carnegie Library of McKeesport, 1507 Library Ave.

(Although the names are similar, Tube City Writers is not part of Tube City Community Media Inc.)

Rial also led a podcasting camp for teen-agers at the library in June.

Rial said she was not much of a shutterbug as a child, but took to the vocation as a teen-ager when she attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in the late 1970s as well as Ohio University.

It was there she and other aspiring photographers would take full days on a fulfilling adventure with no other goal than to take memorable photographs. “I don’t know if people do that anymore,” she said.

She was paid $3 for her first published photograph. At that time, she utilized a Nikon camera Rial calls “one of her all-time favorites.” 

Rial reminisced about being able to go into small concert venues and snap moments with the likes of Cyndi Lauper, who performed at the legendary Decade venue right around the time of her breakthrough album “She’s So Unusual,” which included the mega-hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

Rial said that era of documenting up-and-coming stars seems to be gone, and that many of today’s photographers face threats of copyright infringement just for taking candid photos during live events.

At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the young photographer chronicled the city and surrounding neighborhoods for more than 12 years, before moving to Florida where she worked for the St. Petersburg Times.

When Rial traveled 9,000 miles to visit her sister, Amy, in East Africa in the late 1990s, she took cameras and “50 rolls of film.” The result of the adventure was the 1998 Pulitzer in Spot News Photography for documenting the lives of Burundian and Rwandan survivors of the 1994 genocide.  

“Anticipation” is a key to a photographer’s success, she said.

Case in point: Rial said she waited patiently as two ballet dancers descended a wall during a performance. The performers knew she “got the shot” by the timing of the camera clicks. “Building relationships” with those associated with the shoots are also important.

A few years ago, Rial followed then-Homestead Mayor Betty Esper around town for an expanded project.

She also has worked on anti-graffiti murals in McKeesport, Hazelwood, Sharpsburg, Wilkinsburg and elsewhere. Working with local residents, Rial has captured photos of ordinary people who are inspirations to others in their neighborhood.

Photographs of these role models are made into large murals and placed on building walls, including McKeesport’s city hall on Fifth Avenue.

Rial, who is in her early 60’s, says she has no plan to retire. Good photography, she said, combines “information and impact,” and that means waiting out a perfect photo of people, events and extraordinary moments in time.

Tom Leturgey is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh and the editor of KSWA Digest, the online news and features home of the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance. His work also appears in The Valley Mirror and other publications.

Originally published July 05, 2023.

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