It started with a hashtag.

“I’ve lived here ten years now,” says Jonathan Plum, moderator of the hugely popular local Instagram group, Steel City Grammers, “but I hadn’t discovered this city until a year ago, through Instagram.

“I’ve been to so many places that I never even knew existed, and I met so many cool people from it. I feel like I’m doing something for the city without really getting paid for it, and that’s okay because I love it.”

Photo by Wesley Grim. @wesleygrim

In March of 2014, Tyler Haak interviewed Plum (better known by his IG handle, @PittIndieFreak) and some of his favorite Instagrammers for his Pittsburgh-centric website, Yinzster. While most casual ‘grammers use their accounts to share heavily filtered selfies and pictures of food with friends, Haak noticed there was a growing number of local accounts run by amateur photographers like Plum, devoted mostly to sharing compelling, original photographs of Pittsburgh, its neighborhoods and vistas.

Photo by Tyler Haak. @yinzsterpgh

Haak’s interview series became sort of a “who’s who” of the Pittsburgh Instagram community. Before long a small group of about eight photographers, drawn together by mutual admiration, began to get together regularly to shoot around the city.

“We realized there was no page representing Pittsburgh on Instagram,” says Jay North (@stripdistrict412), who was featured on Yinzster. “If you follow a lot of like, big New York City accounts, I mean, those guys are there; they’re doing it huge. But there was nothing in Pittsburgh that was really representing the city.”

Their solution was Steel City Grammers (@SteelCityGrammers), an Instagram account launched in late April to serve as a hub for the city’s Instagram community. Today, the account has more than 4,700 followers, and their hashtag (#SteelCityGrammers) has been attached to over 36,000 photos.

For 300 million Instagram users, Steel City Grammers is the public face of Pittsburgh.

“What’s cool is when people message you and ask you about the city, because they’re moving here or visiting, and they want details about things to do,” says Kristen Yeo (@Kristen_in_PGH), one of the group’s moderators.

“People would message me from all around the country,” adds Justin Roach (@imjust), another moderator, “and they’ll say things like, ‘I’ve never been to Pittsburgh, but looking at your feed I really want to visit.’”

Photo by Kate Schuster. @for.today

On a recent Saturday afternoon I met up with eight of the group’s 11 moderators, most of whom have been together since those first meet-ups last March. They were there to shoot spots around the North Side as well as to discuss the next day’s public Instameet at North Park, announced days earlier though the account. (The meet was spearheaded by another longtime local Instagrammer and community member, Caulin Grant (@caulin_grant).

In addition to the Instameets, the moderators use the account to announce themed photo challenges where they’ll seek the best photo of a church or neighborhood, for example. They also take turns choosing a daily photo by a local Instagrammer to feature on their account. Any local shot can be considered by simply adding the hashtag #steelcitygrammers to the photo. Whenever a contest winner is announced, or a new photo is featured, the comments are flooded with praise from dozens of community members.

Photo by Justin Roach. @imjust

“I’m inspired by these people every single day,” says North. “We’re just pushing each other on a daily basis.”

Early the next morning at frosty North Park, I was surprised to see nearly 50 people had left their toasty beds to spend the cold morning taking photos with other local Grammers. (Nearly 100 showed up over the summer for a meet on the North Side.)

Introductions at Instameets are two-part: what’s your name, and what’s your handle? One of the first people I recognized from the community needed no introduction: it was Long Hong (@LongQHong), one of the group’s most enthusiastic supporters.

Photo by Josh McCann.  @jmccann_7
Photo by Josh McCann.  @jmccann_7

“Everybody is welcome. Honestly, that’s the best thing: to encourage people to go out, explore the city, and just shoot more, ” he said, adding, “and to show off to the entire world that this place is fantastic.”

Local skyline photographer JP Diroll (@jpdiroll) was one of the few full-time professional photographers I met at the Instameet. He says he has been impressed with the quality of photos coming out of the group, especially considering that many shoot with just a smart phone.

Photo by Jonathan Plum. @PittIndieFreak

“A lot of people, when they see my work, they say you must have a good camera,” says Diroll. “And that’s really insulting to me. It’s really the person; it’s not the gear.”

Diroll is not the only person who has taken note of the quality of work coming out of the Steel City Grammer community. Inspired in part by #emptymet, an occasional pre-hours shoot for influential Instagrammers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Carnegie Science Center recently invited the SCG moderators in for an early morning photo shoot.

Photo by Jay North. @stripdistrict412

“When we at Carnegie Science Center decided to launch an Instagram account (@CarnegieSciCtr), it made sense to team up with Pittsburgh’s best Instagram photographers,” says Rossilynne Culgan, marketing communications manager for the Science Center (photos from the shoot can be viewed on Instagram by searching for the hashtag #SilentScienceCenter).

Since that shoot, the moderators have been invited to photograph other city institutions as well. Cori Lucotch, new media producer at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, credits 150 new followers to the museum’s account (@pghkids) to an early morning shoot with some of the Grammers.

Photo by Jay Cassidy. @jaycass84

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership has also taken note of the group’s role as civic ambassadors. Together with local Instagrammer Wendy Lachendro, some of the SCG moderators are collaborating with the PDP on what is being called the 412 Project (@412Project). The goal, says Lachendro, is to establish a pop-up photo installation sometime in the spring that would promote local amateur photographers—as well as the city—by placing photos of Pittsburgh in the windows of vacant storefronts downtown.

Photo by Heather Marie. @featherinthewild

It is the Grammers’ vision, writ large. Yet despite the account’s popularity, it remains a labor of love for the moderators working behind the scenes to make it all happen.

“I’ve made lifelong friends with these people through the group,” says moderator Jay Cassidy (JayCass84). “That’s the coolest part.”

Photo by Greg Scelp.  @genericpieces
Photo by Greg Scelp.  @genericpieces

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.