Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project

Edited by Sam Stephenson

Lyndhurst/Norton, 176 pp., $39.95

In early 1955, the celebrated American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith was hired to produce a selection of photographs to illustrate one chapter of a book honoring Pittsburgh’s bicentennial, which was to take place three years later. Author Stefan Lorant and his publishers expected Smith to swoop in, fire off a couple of rolls, and then hightail it back home to the suburbs of New York.

Artistically, Smith (1918-1978) was an ideal choice for the job. He had first made a name for himself as a war photographer, in World War II’s Pacific theater. After being hit by shrapnel from a Japanese bomb—sustaining injuries that required a year of recuperation—Smith eventually returned to photography in the late ’40s, making photo essays for the top magazines of his day, most notably Life, which gave him a coveted and well-remunerated staff job. His photo essays from that period—about life in a small Spanish village, a country doctor in Colorado, a nurse-midwife in South Carolina, and Albert Schweitzer’s medical missions in Africa—are considered a high point of visual journalism during the era before television became dominant.

However, Lorant apparently knew little about Smith’s usual modus operandi, which was aptly captured in the title Smith gave to a night-school course he once taught: “Photography Made Difficult.” To his editors, Smith was, time and again, a monumental annoyance. In his foreword to Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project—a belated monument to Smith’s chronicle of mid-’50s Pittsburgh—Sam Stephenson writes that Smith

rejected the editors’ notion that a photographer’s job was over when the negatives were finished. Smith felt that only he could print pictures from his negatives and arrange layouts true to the integrity of his subjects. He was enraged by the slightest dissent from his editors; he stormed out of meetings and repeatedly threatened to quit….Life’s editors countered that Smith was irrational and pigheaded, that other staff photographers did not have problems with their policies.

Making matters worse, Smith’s arrival in Pittsburgh in March 1955 came at a pivotal, and unstable, time in his life. Smith’s mother had recently died, and he had just quit his job at Life for the final time, triggering a spiral of financial difficulties that would dog him the rest of his days. Smith had also begun consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol and amphetamines, which sometimes enabled him to work 96 hours at a stretch but also drove a wedge between him and his family.

The artistic struggle that Smith took up in Pittsburgh seemed to both energize him and rip him apart. In the 1989 biography W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Substance, the Life and Work of an American Photographer, a colleague of Smith’s told author Jim Hughes how Smith, tooling around town in his station wagon, would display joy like “a child. When I saw him, he would say, ‘I ran across this!’ or ‘I have to show you that scene!’ And he could spend hours taking a picture.” The images Smith made in the city were among the best of his career. But at the same time, he was displaying a widening range of mental problems, from mania and obsession to depression and a martyr complex.

Ultimately, Smith fell months, then years, behind schedule. He worked on the project through most of 1955 and made return trips in each of the following two years. In time, Smith, Lorant, and their lawyers began to battle over when and how the images should be delivered, who owned the rights, and how much compensation Smith was owed.

In all, Smith produced 17,000 negatives, not counting the ones he threw away after developing them, plus others that were stolen from his car. Believing that one chapter of Lorant’s book would never do his project justice, Smith devoted much of the rest of the decade—as well as sporadic efforts until his death—to the Sisyphean task of creating a record of the Pittsburgh project that met his exacting standards.

He never managed to do so. Smith spent months organizing and reorganizing proof prints on a bulletin board in his studio; he sketched page layouts one after another without ever settling on a final design. He pitched the idea of a Pittsburgh photo essay to most of the nation’s top magazines, but though many offered him substantial sums of money for the images, no one would cede him the control he craved, fearing—no doubt correctly—an editorial quagmire.

For Smith, the pursuit of perfection came at an exorbitant cost. He turned down almost all other photographic assignments for several years; as a result, his wife and four children often went hungry. (Smith did, too; he once remarked that the Pittsburgh project had been financed by the lining of his stomach.) Eventually, they had to sell the house in the suburbs; Smith abandoned them entirely for a ratty loft in New York City where he could toy with the Pittsburgh images amid a frenzy of amphetamines and jazz.

The one time Smith actually managed to publish a Pittsburgh photo essay actually heightened his agony. In 1958, Popular Photography offered Smith 38 pages of its 1959 annual special edition to run a version of the Pittsburgh project. The magazine dangled far less money in front of Smith than other leading magazines had, but they offered him complete editorial control, so he accepted. Yet when the issue appeared on newsstands, he nonetheless managed to find fault with everything from the reproduction quality to the page size to the captions (which, because of Smith’s chronic lateness, had to be cobbled together by ghostwriters from the photographer’s unfocused thoughts).

Though individual prints have subsequently been hung in museum exhibitions, the Popular Photography spread marked the last time the Pittsburgh pictures were shown as a group—until the publication of Dream Street, which accompanies an exhibition now showing at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, to be followed by visits to the International Center of Photography in New York, the University of Arizona in Tucson—where Smith’s archives are located—and Duke University, in Durham, N.C.

In the late ’90s, Stephenson—who teaches at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies—began to think about turning the Pittsburgh project into a full-blown exhibition and catalog. Stephenson, fortunately, appears to have been more levelheaded about the project than Smith ever was. He offers a well-written introduction that puts the project into historical context and weaves together, with admirable conciseness, the story of Smith’s images and his personal difficulties. An equally thoughtful afterword by Yale University Professor Alan Trachtenberg covers the photographic-history context as well as the nature of the city Smith spent so much effort chronicling.

Clearly, Smith’s presence haunts the 176-page catalog, even a quarter-century after his death. Stephenson feels compelled to explain at some length how he made his graphical decisions, even allotting several pages to reproducing the full layout from Popular Photography, to provide “the clearest possible glimpse in one document of Smith’s grand designs.”

Stephenson needn’t have fretted so much. For the most part, his layout—one or two pictures per page, within 10 thematically linked sections—is as defensible as his explanation is defensive. Better yet, the book’s large format and slick paper stock make Smith’s images fresh, showing off both the inky blacks of Pittsburgh’s night skies and the searing magma of its steel factories. The design and reproduction quality is surely better than Smith could have ever expected at the time.

Street Scene, the image that Stephenson chose to open the volume, sets the perfect tone for the collection. Like roughly half of the book’s 175 photos, Street Scene was not included in the Popular Photography spread. The image is as pleasing as a beautifully orchestrated opening shot of a movie. The viewer stares across a dip at a hill covered by row after row of perilously perched houses—an impossibly large number wedged into such a small space. As one’s eye moves forward into the image, it follows the slope downward and then up again. Most viewers’ eyes will bounce around from corner to corner before focusing on a tiny, perfectly framed Everyman walking away down the hill.

Such images—even more than the glimpses of now-lost institutions, from fedora-wearing club men to old-fashioned snack bars—illustrate why ’50s Pittsburgh was a wonderful place for a skilled photographer to roam. The city’s cramped, hilly geography offered a bracing mixture of startling vistas, industrial infrastructure, and human-scale neighborhoods.

In Dutchtown, Northside; Downtown Pittsburgh in the Background, Smith again used the hills to impressive effect, capturing buildings near and far in equally dramatic focus. Across the spread, in Smoky City, Smith skillfully captured the blanket of smog that in those years was just beginning to lift from the city’s skyline.

Pittsburgh’s industrial legacy also provided Smith with impressive visual material. He made excellent use of the city’s winding braids of railroad tracks, particularly at hours near dusk when they were the only objects left reflecting the sun’s rays. And one of the book’s most memorable sections contains images of steelworkers that are probably unmatched in the history of photography. Working under difficult conditions—not just the heat but also the rapidly changing levels of light—Smith elegantly documented hunched workers and molten steel. In Dance of the Flaming Coke, a solitary worker twists himself into knots as he uses a long-handled instrument to poke at a fiery aperture. Is the worker inside or outside? Is it day or night? It’s impossible to say: The rising smoke swallows up the light and turns the scene into an enigmatic, hellish vision.

In his afterword, Trachtenberg points out that Smith—unlike photographer Lewis Hine, who documented the city five decades earlier—did not focus on the lives and struggles of individual workers, despite having, like Hine, a firm commitment to social justice. Indeed, no individual’s name appears in any of Smith’s captions, even though he photographed countless people in varied settings. When it came down to it, Smith intended to make a portrait of a city, rather than the individuals within it.

Even so, his images of children—black and white, rich and poor, wide-eyed parade spectators and sleeping infants—stand up well when measured against those of other 20th-century street photographers. In one of his best images, a young black boy climbs a sign on a dilapidated corner as four friends watch with varying degrees of interest. The sign, its irony fully intended, reads “Pride Street.”

Interestingly, the Popular Photography essay includes a seemingly less-charged image that lacks the climbing boy. This may be a reflection of Popular Photography’s general skittishness; according to Hughes, Smith’s editors requested the substitution of some images that were considered too provocative, including one of men ogling a female passerby in front of a bolt-and-screw factory. Stephenson’s use of the alternate version—Children at Colwell and Pride Streets, Hill District—as well as other, similarly thoughtful selections, shows a welcome willingness to look at Smith’s archive with a smart, fresh eye.

Indeed, Dream Street could have been cut by perhaps a third without diluting the coherence and power of Smith’s vision. His various images of college students aren’t much more interesting than what one might have seen in campus recruiting brochures of the time, and the volume contains a few too many images of banks, churches, and street signs—even a few too many houses with those lovely-ugly smokestacks out back. Smith’s despair about finding enough editorial space to tell the story was, in retrospect, largely misplaced. CP