W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Photographs: “Dream Street” resurrects his “magnum opus”

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“The story is a profile of Pittsburgh, at this period of its renaissance – a good study of an important American city; at improvement, at living, at production. It is a fine set of photographs … As of now I can’t prove, of course, that it is one of my finest photographic essays, in quantity and quality … But my completed prints, which have always done my speaking – without drumbeat song of hypnotic salesmanship – will do my speaking once again. If completed, the prints will establish that validity.”

W. Eugene Smith

Letter to Dorothy Norman, 1955


PITTSBURGH – “Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Photographs,” an exhibition of work by one of the great photographers of mid-20th century American life, will open Nov. 3 at Carnegie Museum of Art.

The exhibition will bring together 195 photographs from Smith’s epic, unfinished essay of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s. This is the first time these photographs – which Smith considered the finest of his career – will have been exhibited together.

The exhibition will run through Feb. 10.

In 1955, having just resigned from a high-profile but stormy career as a staff photographer with “Life Magazine,” Smith was commissioned to spend three weeks in Pittsburgh and produce 100 photos for a book being produced by journalist Stefan Lorant commemorating the city’s bicentennial, “Pittsburgh: Story of an American City.”

Magnum opus. Smith stayed a year, compiling nearly 17,000 photographs for what would be the most ambitious photographic essay of his life, his intended magnum opus.

“Only a fragment of the work was ever seen, despite Smith’s lifelong conviction that it was his greatest set of photographs,” said Sam Stephenson of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and guest curator of “Dream Street.”

“The bulk of my work over five years has been trying to identify – from all the clues, fragments, and vague blueprints that Smith left behind – the set of some 200 Pittsburgh master prints that he deemed ‘the synthesis of the whole.’”

“Dream Street is an astonishing, first-ever portrayal, not just of Pittsburgh, but also of America at mid-century, by a master photojournalist,” Stephenson said.

Smith believed Pittsburgh was an ideal subject for exposing the conflicts of 1950s America, and he aimed to create a photo essay that captured the complexity both of the city and the modern world.

Contrasting images. Viewed together, Smith’s Pittsburgh photographs present images of hope and despair, rebuilding and decay, poverty and affluence, solitude and togetherness.

Assembling these images into a coherent essay grew to represent for Smith the daunting task – perhaps the impossibility – of creating a definitive expression of his subject as he saw it.

Smith said that his Pittsburgh photographs were the most vital expression of his life’s work, and yet he judged the project an utter failure.

In the mid-1970′s, while delivering what would amount to almost a self-eulogy, Smith recalled the Pittsburgh period of his career.

“I think that I was at my peak as a photographer in, say, 1958 or so,” he said. “My imagination and my seeing were both, I don’t know … ‘red hot’ or something. Everywhere I looked, every time I thought, it seemed to me it left me with great exuberance and just a truer quality of seeing. But it was the most miserable time of my life.”

Early career. Smith became known in the years before World War II when his photographs were appearing in the nation’s best-known magazines. He joined “Life Magazine” in 1939 as a staff photographer, but resigned after two years, disappointed with his routine assignments.

During World War II he was a frontline combat photographer in the Pacific theater. He rejoined Life in 1944, to capture for the magazine images of the brutal struggles at Guam, Saipan, Okinawa, the Phillippines, and Iwo Jima.

After the war Smith returned to “Life Magazine” where he took on more than 50 assignments from 1947 to 1954 His photo essays are considered major works in the history of photojournalism.

Pittsburgh assignment. But Smith constantly wrangled with editors at Life for artistic control of his work, and in 1954, he quit and joined Magnum, the photographer’s cooperative, which sent him to Pittsburgh on the Lorant assignment.

All of the photographs in Dream Street were taken between 1955 and 1957, and many are iconic images of Pittsburgh.

Smith felt the value of his Pittsburgh photographs was to be found in the expressive potential of the organized whole.

Many magazines, including Life, were interested in the project, but Smith would not relinquish editorial control of the layout.

Finally “Popular Photography” magazine agreed to give Smith 38 pages in its 1959 Photography Annual, paying him only $1,900, but giving him complete control of the layout. The spread, however, was still only a brief representation of Smith’s larger vision, and he considered the published layout, which he aptly titled “Labyrinthian Walk,” to be a “debacle” and a “failure.”

Photos and clues. Smith left behind 1,200 master prints and approximately 6,000 work prints, along with snapshots and sketches of bulletin boards on which his ideas for arrangement of the photos were pinned.

“Dream Street” is organized in ten sections loosely modeled on Smith’s intentions for the layout, as documented through the sketches and snapshots of the bulletin boards on which he worked out his ideas. The exhibition also is informed by Smith’s own selections and arrangements of Pittsburgh prints that he produced for three retrospectives of his work between 1960 and 1971.

Related programs. “Dream Street” will be accompanied with variety of special activities, including two symposiums.

The first, “W. Eugene Smith,” on Nov. 11, will focus on Smith’s life and his role in the development of the modern photo essay.

It will be moderated by curator Sam Stephenson and will feature several speakers, including panelists Harold Feinstein and Jim Karalas, Smith’s assistants in New York and Pittsburgh, respectively.

The second symposium, “Pittsburgh, an Evolving Story,” on Dec. 1, will explore Pittsburgh from mid-1950s through today, and explore and the vision for the future of the city.

Guest speakers include Thomas Hanchett of the Museum of the New South, and Alan Trachtenberg from Yale University.

Other programs include:

* Dec. 8 lecture by Pittsburgh photographer, Clyde Hare;

* Jan. 26 panel discussion about visually documenting Pittsburgh, moderated by the executive director of the Silver Eye Center for Photography, Linda Benedict-Jones with panelists that include “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” photographers Bill Wade and Martha Rial.

There will also be poetry readings relating to the subjects in Smith’s photographs; an evening for college and university students; and a variety of art history courses and studio classes.

Dream Street will also have a special interactive gallery program designed to spark student discussions about Smith’s interpretation of Pittsburgh through his photo essay and the ways images communicate ideas.

For more information about about the exhibit, special events, programs, or classes related to “Dream Street,” call the Carnegie Museum of Art, call 412-622-3131 or visit our web site at http://www.cmoa.org.

The Carnegie Museum of Art is located at 4400 Forbes Ave. in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

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