By Lee Chottiner
When Boris Feldblyum was a teenager in the Soviet Union, he began collecting old photos and postcards. He kept it up after he immigrated to America in 1979.
Those photos are what ignited his interest in photography in general and architectural photography in particular.
They also ignited his interest in Wheeling.
“When I came across pictures of old Wheeling, like from the early 20th century, I became very curious about this town,” said Feldbyum, who today is a Washington, D.C.-based photographer. “It was very interesting, architecturally speaking.”
Last October, he finally got to see Wheeling, and to shoot it. Returning home from Louisville, Ky., where his son is doing a psychology residency, he and his wife, Tamara, drove through Ohio, spending the night in St. Clairsville. They decided to stop in the Friendly City the next morning.
Now, Wheeling residents can see the shots he took of the city at Feldblyum’s website, bfcollection.net.
“Unfortunately, the weather was pretty bad that day,” Feldblyum recalled. “If you look at the pictures, there’s no sun [with a couple exceptions], and the sun is what makes the buildings shine.”
Nevertheless, the Wheeling page at his website is a comprehensive collection of images, not only of the cityscape as it looks today, but of its vistas and some interiors.
“I was not disappointed,” Feldblyum said. “There are many styles of architecture [there] because a century ago there were a lot of well-heeled people—industrialists and such. They had money and they built to their tastes.”
He and his wife parked on Main Street that day, in front of the Flatiron Building, then spent the next two hours walking around the city taking pictures. Later, he said, he spent at least 10 times the length of that shooting spree editing his images—lightening, straightening or otherwise touching up.
Since he didn’t use a tripod, many of the photos were slightly crooked. He corrected that flaw during the editing process. The result is a clean, geometric impression of the images that is very apparent when viewing them. The straight lines of the buildings would never intersect if they could be extended beyond the frames of the photos.
One building he shot, both inside and out, was the Capitol Theatre, which happened to be open the day he was in town.
“The way it works, I try a door. If it’s open, I walk in, and that’s what I did.” Feldblyum said “A gentleman was there and asked what I wanted. I told him who I was and could I look around. He said, ‘sure.’”
Occasionally, the sun peaked out, as it did when he shot the hole in downtown from Market Street. It’s a somewhat surreal shot with a lone tree breaking up the wide expanse of space created by the city’s demolition of buildings on that block.
Among the other buildings Feldblyum shot were Independence Hall, the old B&O Terminal (now West Virginia Northern Community College), the Ohio County Courthouse, the DHHR building, the First Capitol, the Professional Building, the Fort Henry Club, Temple Shalom, the Federal Building, and several houses, private businesses and streets and vistas, including some of Wheeling Island and the Suspension Bridge.
Feldblyum, 64, got his first camera when he was 11. Despite his love for photography, he trained to be a mechanical engineer in the Soviet Union. When he came to America, he worked in the automotive and aerospace industries, shooting pictures on the weekends. He became a full-time photographer in the 1990s when the company he worked for in suburban Maryland closed.
“I’ve always been interested in architecture, in cityscape, since I picked up my camera,” he said. “I was interested in, what they call in the business, the built environment. But when I have the chance I love to [photograph] people.”
He said he hopes to return to Wheeling—for business or pleasure, and in better weather—to reshoot the city.
As interesting and comprehensive as his collection is, Feldblyum described the shots as “unremarkable.”
“They’re touristy pictures,” he said. “To me it’s a memory of a trip, nothing more.” I use them as a digital notebook. But I always look for potential for a memorable image.”