Alicia Dallago’s journey with photography first took shape far outside Western Pennsylvania.
Over a 40-year career behind a camera, she earned numerous accolades, including two Kodak Gallery awards.
Dallago, owner of Alicia Photography, was a portrait photographer in the North Hills for 36 years. For the past year, she has operated a photo restoration studio out of her home in Manor using skills refined during the darkest days of the pandemic.
Dallago came to the United States from Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1977 with her then-husband and two sons, who were 4 and 6. Her husband had a work permit for a job in Cleveland, but she did not.
“The only thing that I could legally do was volunteer (at) a museum or go to school,” said Dallago, 81. “I didn’t speak English, and I had never driven in the snow. I thought going downtown to the museum area — it was out of the question.”
Photography quickly captured her eye.
Dallago enrolled in photography classes at a community college in Cleveland and fell in love with the art form. She earned an award from the Cleveland Museum of Art at one of the first photography shows she entered.
Despite her passion for photography, Dallago realized she had a lot to learn after booking her first two portrait photography contracts.
“I didn’t know anything about posing, so my posing was awful,” Dallago said. “My lighting was even worse.”
Seven years later, Dallago’s husband was transferred to Pittsburgh for work.
“I left all of my mistakes behind,” Dallago said. “But then I knew that I didn’t know anything.”
She studied under a master photographer for a few years and opened her own studio in the North Hills in 1986, shortly after she and her husband filed for divorce.
To continue honing her craft, she enrolled in classes at the Winona International School of Professional Photography — a branch of Professional Photographers of America — which operated from 1921 to 1984. She learned a variety of photography styles and techniques, shooting different images each week and receiving critiques from her instructors.
Her studio began to grow.
She had a real knack for capturing expressions, said Kay Bush, Dallago’s former studio manager and close friend of 30 years.
“When she worked with kids, she was down on the floor with them,” said Bush of Allegheny Township. “It was fun to watch her work.”
Through photography, Dallago found ways to give back to the community.
In place of a portrait sitting fee, she accepted toys from her clients, which she donated to North Hills Community Outreach for Christmas.
Dallago created a scholarship for women with children who wanted to return to school.
She generated funding through her studio work. The recipients — many of whom were single mothers or domestic violence survivors — were selected by the outreach and the Pittsburgh North Regional Chamber.
“She is an active leader, especially toward women who need a lift,” Bush said. “She is really helpful with that.”
When Bush herself needed a lift, Dallago was there.
The two met through a divorce support group held in a local church and became fast friends. They went on walks “most every evening” to commiserate, Bush said.
“Sometimes, the angrier we were, the faster we walked,” Bush said. “But other times, we just had a really good time and enjoyed being together.”
For Dallago, photography was more than a job.
“There’s people that take their job as a job,” Dallago said, “and there are people like me (for whom) it has never been a job. It was my life.”
Dallago closed her studio in 2012. She shot portraits out of her home, using the wildflowers and water feature in her yard as backgrounds.
Then the pandemic hit.
Unable to safely invite clients into her home for portraits, Dallago became depressed.
While decluttering her home, Dallago came across a few old photos of her family, including a candid shot of her mother and father holding her as a baby. Her mother hated having her picture taken, Dallago said. It touched her to see her mother’s natural expression and smile again.
Dallago found a new direction. She began restoring and enhancing old photos — fixing spots that were dark, blurry, torn, scratched or stained. Soon, she realized others may want the same.
“When you’re a business person, the idea of a business is always there,” she said.
After moving to Manor to be closer to her son, she opened her home photo restoration studio on Sandy Hill Road. She has stuck with the practice since.
Dallago is still searching for organizations to support in her new Manor community.
“I told my son, ‘I’m not going to get involved in the community. I’m not going to be a chamber member,’ ” she said. “I went downtown (during my first week in Manor), I saw the (Norwin Chamber of Commerce) on Main Street, I walked in and I left being a member.
“I thought, ‘No, I have to be a part of this.’ ”
Quincey Reese is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Quincey by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .