A gaffer finds her light in Pittsburgh
chief lighting technician
the DP’s go-to guy
dispenser of gaffer’s tape
brute arc myths
day for night & the anti-auteur theory
transposer of sun/shadow
nuancer of mood
romancer of stars
These lines describe the work Celeste Gainey of Point Breeze undertook during her career as a gaffer in the motion picture and architectural design industries. Released on March 10, Gainey’s first full-length poetry collection, the GAFFER, combines reflections on her lighting career with childhood memories and gender bending to illuminate the emergence of a female gaffer in the 1970s. While light is no longer her medium of choice, Gainey continues to engage with it, even here in the Steel City, where a gray sky can linger for days.
“Pittsburgh is a city of light,” Gainey says. “The light is blue-gray steel. It’s muscular and strong. . . We have an extremely expressive sky. On a dreary day when you have a light that breaks through, it’s brilliant and appreciated.”
A California native, Gainey spent much of her life in New York City. She is responsible for lighting some of New York’s upscale establishments, and, along the way, worked on the sets of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and The Wiz. In 2008, she began visiting Pittsburgh to study poetry in Carlow University’s Master of Fine Arts Low-Residency Creative Writing Program and moved here permanently in 2012.
Like many newcomers, Gainey was stunned upon exiting the Fort Pitt Tunnel and seeing the city for the first time. “I had an immediate connection to Pittsburgh,” she said. “[I was] heart struck.”
Gainey, who thought she was leaving behind lighting and film, quickly learned otherwise. For the last few years, the motion picture industry has been making its mark on Pittsburgh.
“There’s such a great future for film here,” Gainey says. “Pittsburgh is such an individual place. Its gifts are so particular and unique. . . There are a lot of people here who want film to happen and are writing stories that will be shot here.”
For Gainey, film is about teamwork and collaboration, two qualities she believes define Pittsburgh.
“Pittsburgh has a legacy of working together, building communities, and solving problems and that is what film is. There’s a great work ethic and appreciation for the arts. There’s more support here for the working artist.”
A 1973 graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Gainey became enamored with lighting during her first year of college. Her enthusiasm showed and an instructor invited her to collaborate with him on an educational film. Gainey’s peers quickly came to identify her as someone skilled in lighting and approached her about lighting their films.
By the time Gainey entered the workforce, there was a push for women to fill nontraditional roles. New York film technicians were struggling to find work and union locals were reluctant to admit new members, let alone women. When Gainey sought admission to Local 52 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the largest union representing workers in the motion picture industry, her prospects looked bleak. Thanks to a tip from a union business agent, she began freelancing at all three major networks, lighting news and documentaries.
Though Gainey was on the path to having the career she wanted, it came with a price. In the beginning, her male colleagues parked far from filming sites, so Gainey would have to carry equipment several blocks. At first, she said, they didn’t speak to her, an experience she recounts in the poem “cameramen:”
some will leave you alone
some will tell you where to plug it in
some will respect you
some will only talk sports
some will call you baby legs
some will not know how to talk to you
not even hello
It wasn’t long, however, before Gainey gained their respect: In 1974, Gainey became the first female gaffer admitted to the IATSE.
By the mid-1980s, Gainey transitioned from motion pictures to architectural lighting after a friend asked her to light his restaurant. Gainey founded Gotham Light and Power, Inc., first in Los Angeles, then in East Hampton, N.Y. By 2007, though, she felt “done with lighting” and found herself writing poetry.
“The first thing I ever wanted to be when I was a child was a poet,” she said. As an adult, Gainey found that “[poetry] was something I could do myself. I could create something with only my own collaboration.”
Though the act of writing was satisfying, Gainey said she didn’t feel like she knew what she was doing. Struck by the poetry of Jan Beatty, she applied to Carlow, where Beatty is the director of creative writing for undergraduates and teaches in the low-residency MFA program.
Beatty, who wrote a blurb for Gainey’s book, speaks confidently of Gainey’s growth as a poet. “Celeste Gainey’s poetry is singular, affecting, and unlike any other work,” Beatty says. “When I first met Celeste in Carlow’s MFA program, I knew that I was meeting an artist: obsessed, committed, and ready to pursue a dream. Her work grew stronger, then stronger — finding its way to the heart of the GAFFER and the world of light and the artist blazing.”
Gainey describes her poetry as “working with light in another dimension.” The light and visual aspects of a subject are important to her, a quality that is evident in her poem “the seventh avenue line:”
the terminal I’m always passing through
on my way to someplace else;
where the lighting can be brutal
because nobody’s going to loiter
long enough to care if it glares.
But I do: my inner Spectra
forever seeking f8—too bright
is the heaven I’m after
Gainey cannot avoid light in her poems: Only a gaffer would notice the burning terminal lights, yet only a poet would think to write about them and then to feel that all of those rays are symbolic of some celestial place.
This story originally ran in Pop City Media here.