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"Dream Street: Pittsburgh Photographs by W. Eugene Smith"
2001-11-03 until 2002-02-10
Carnegie Museum of Art
Dream Street brings 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 — have been exhibited together.
In 1955, having just resigned his high-profile but stormy post at Life magazine, Smith was commissioned to spend three weeks in Pittsburgh and produce 100 photos for noted journalist and author Stefan Lorant's book commemorating the city’s bicentennial, Pittsburgh: Story of an American City. 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, says 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.’
Stephenson adds, Dream Street is an astonishing, first-ever portrayal, not just of Pittsburgh, but also of America at mid-century, by a master photojournalist.
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. Viewed together, Smith’s Pittsburgh photographs present images of hope and despair, rebuilding and decay, poverty and affluence, and 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 to be an utter failure. In the mid-1970’s, while delivering what would amount to almost a self-eulogy—he would die only a few years later—Smith recalled the Pittsburgh period of his career: I think that I was at my peak as a photographer in, say, 1958 or so. 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. Dream Street yields a provocative and illuminating perspective on Smith’s creative process and an invaluable portrait of Pittsburgh at the pinnacle of its industrial might.
Throughout his career, Smith was famous for his powerful images and photo essays, and for his difficult personality. His photo essays gained iconic status, yet his obsessive demands for artistic control of his work, along with the demands he placed on himself, earned him the reputation of a maverick. It was a reputation Smith cherished.
All of the photographs in Dream Street were taken between 1955 and 1957, and many are iconic images of Pittsburgh. Smoky City, for example, shows newly-built office buildings behind a screen of smoke from steel mills, and Dance of the Flaming Coke, catches a steelworker in motion as he handles smoldering material. Other images, such as barges on the Monongahela river, United States Steel’s Homestead Works, hillside houses and staircases, the old Home Plate Café, and the statue of Honus Wagner outside of Forbes Field, depict well-known sights to those who are familiar with Pittsburgh, as it was in the 1950s and as it is now.
Some of the Pittsburgh project photographs evoke a feeling of loneliness and despair, independent of time or place. An old woman sits alone on the steps of a closed store as young people sit and talk above her on the roof, each unaware of the others. A young African-American boy hangs tightly to the top of a street pole, his body draped over the sign, Pride Street. A teenaged girl, leans against a parking meter at a street carnival and transmits the feeling of melancholy that somehow seems out of place in the optimistic 1950s.
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. In fact, he rejected several offers of up to $20,000 because publishers would not allow him control of the essay. 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 Photography Annual spread was 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. Perhaps doomed from the start in finding a satisfactory place to publicly display the complex essay that he imagined, 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.
W. Eugene Smith, 1918-1978
Pride Street, Pittsburgh 1955
gelatin silver print
8 7/16 x 5 11/16 in.
Center for Creative Photography