PITTSBURGH — With his photographic eye on Pittsburgh from the inside, Chancelor Humphrey can see why people are becoming more and more attracted to the city from the outside.
The man behind the popular Instagram account Keep Pittsburgh Dope has been building a brand and supporting himself as a creative and an influencer during what he calls “a special time” for the city that he loves. As giant companies like Google, Uber, and Amazon set up shop in the city, Humphrey talked to GeekWire about his work and what he loves about Pittsburgh.
“I feel like I’m in the heart of the mix of new things popping up, like potentially Amazon,” Humphrey said, referencing Pittsburgh’s position as one of 20 cities in the running for Amazon’s HQ2. “We know it’s a long shot but there’s excitement for that hopefully bringing new jobs and new people and maybe a little bit more diversity, if that happens.”
Humphrey, 29, who grew up about 40 minutes outside Pittsburgh, has lived in the city for almost five years. He studied radio in college, and photography was never on his radar. But after starting a blog in 2012, he got frustrated when freelance photographers failed to show up for assignments. So he bought himself a camera and started doing the work himself.
About four years ago he launched Keep Pittsburgh Dope to capture the people and the street style catching his eye around town. The Instagram feed serves as a jumping off point for a self-made career that revolves around freelance photography, collaborations, influencer-type work and more.
Armed with a Canon Mark III — “that’s my baby” — primarily outfitted with a 50mm lens, Humphrey thinks people have gotten pretty familiar with seeing him around the city.
“I’m still a 6′ 3″ black dude rolling up on you with a camera,” he laughed. “So I still have to be like, ‘Yo, I’m taking this picture for this.’ But everyone’s pretty cool, I rarely get no’s. People want their picture taken.”
Being the rabid sports town that it is, Pittsburgh style at a passing glance can sometimes look like a sea of black and gold. But Humphrey said it’s more unique than just sports merchandise, and that thrifting culture gives Pittsburghers “a very vintage style” — at least among young people.
He does’t have any formal fashion training himself, but Humphrey knows what he likes and what works. He’s been heavily influenced by well-known street style photographers such as The Sartorialist, Scott Schuman, and Bill Cunningham, the legendary New York Times fashion photographer. He’s also a fan of the storytelling prowess of Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York.
Humphrey credits hard work and having a social media plan for his ability to live off of what he does. In a smaller place like Pittsburgh, a lot of brands don’t comprehend that they have to pay for those eyeballs on Keep Pittsburgh Dope.
“I’m way past free stuff. I gotta live off this,” Humphrey said. “The bigger brands kind of get it, but that’s so few and far between — I might get a Lyft — but they don’t come everyday. It’s just them getting used to influencers and working with people with a certain following. I built that up. That’s my database. You have to pay for that.”
His brand has grown organically, based on word of mouth and not the hashtag- and mentions-heavy promotion that many folks rely on to attract an audience. He promoted his first post on Instagram just recently, paying $5 to “boost” the image because he got a shot (below) that he really wanted more people to see.
“It was this lady who I’ve been trying to capture for a whole year now. And she always says no. Always,” Humphrey said. “And she is the most stylish woman I’ve ever seen. And she always says no. Last week, I saw her and I was like, ‘Yo, is today the day?’ And she smiled and she said yes. After some begging she let me take it. I knew people were gonna love it.”
Once he got to 20,000 followers on Instagram he bought into the fact that his work is for real, and he wants to do his first photo show sometime this year, and put out a street style book next year to “get some tangible things in the world besides likes and stuff.”
And doing it in all Pittsburgh is definitely key, as opposed to trying to Keep New York Dope or any other much bigger place. Humphrey said Pittsburgh is a great city to create in right now because a lot of ideas haven’t been tapped yet — “whatever you’re trying to do, you can do it big here.”
Whether Amazon has gotten that message remains to be seen. And if they have, and they do bring HQ2 to Pittsburgh, it remains to be seen how that changes everything, including the culture of the place.
“Pittsburgh is in a cool spot,” Humphrey said. “I know it’s inevitable, more people are gonna find out about Pittsburgh — more companies and more people. I guess that comes with anything. We just don’t want Pittsburgh to become … uncool.”