A perfectionist's portrait of mid-century Pittsburgh
W. Eugene Smith saw his attempt to chronicle Pittsburgh "at work, at play, at existence" as the culmination of his career - an unprecedented project by one of the world's most revered - and defiant - photojournalists.
He also regarded his unfinished "magnum opus," which consumed him from 1955 to 1958, as a massive failure because it was never published as he envisioned it, an unrealized dream not unlike those suggested in the faces of his subjects. Yet he believed - and critics agree - that it was the finest work he'd ever done.
With "Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project," Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art is exhibiting for the first time anywhere what guest curator Sam Stephenson says was Smith's "synthesis of the whole": 193 silver-gelatin prints meant to tell the story he'd originally whittled to 1,200 master prints - from a remarkable 17,000 images made during a year-long residency and two more years in a darkroom.
Smith (1918-1978) was supposed to produce 100 images in three weeks for the book, "Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City." Instead, he fractured his family and went broke trying to capture "equilibriums of paradox," in what Mr. Stephenson calls the "postwar euphoria" of an industrial city at its peak, experiencing major urban renewal and breaking free of its smog-filled past.
In his notes, Smith described his juxtapositions as "growth and decay, beauty and squalor, generosity and greed, love and hatred, understanding and ignorance." He used Pittsburgh as a mirror to catch reflections of America that both comfort and disturb.
A perfectionist who needed to get inside his subjects, Smith would spend weeks in an environment before picking up a camera. When he finally did, he'd spend hours - or days - composing just one image. Such was the case in Pittsburgh.
In 1955, for a book commemorating the city's bicentennial, author Stefan Lorant sought the world's best photojournalist, and Smith's photo essays for Life magazine - including "Nurse midwife" and "Spanish Village" - proved that he was it. Yet Lorant experienced what others had warned him about: Smith's quest for truth and uncompromising standards made him impossible to work with.
Smith's photographs are studies in contradictions (made more intense by his high-contrast prints): humble row houses against tree-framed skyscrapers; the moon visible in a formerly grit-filled sky ("Dutchtown, Northside"); solid churches against rickety homes and big factories ("St. Michael's Church, Southside"), and men taming fire and molten steel ("Dance of the Flaming Coke"). And throughout, smokestacks.
But the most striking aspect of "Dream Street" is its sadness. Most of Smith's portraits are melancholy, no matter what age group or activity is depicted.
Though the exhibit's first themed section is titled "Many Togethers," and community is a theme throughout, another is called "Ballads of the Alone." The accompanying text quotes Smith: "Man carries his loneliness with him." Of the film-noirish "Night" images, exhibition curator Stephenson says, "Light is not conquering darkness but struggling to escape it."
Smith's freelance assignment was his first after he left Life magazine, weary of battling for editorial control over his groundbreaking work.
This project appeared only in print just once, in Popular Photography's 1959 annual, because that was the only publication willing to give him layout control. He squeezed 88 photos into 38 pages. But for this brilliant, tormented artist, even that wasn't enough.
After closing in Pittsburgh Feb. 10, 'Dream Street' moves to the International Center of Photography in New York, from March 29 to June 16.