Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Photographs, an exhibition of work by one of the 20th century's greatest photographers, will be on view at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at The University of Arizona from July 13 to September 29, 2002. Dream Street brings together 195 photographs from Smith's epic, unfinished essay of Pittsburgh. This is the first time these photographs-which Smith considered the finest of his career-have been exhibited together.
The exhibition joins the two largest and most important public holdings of prints from the project, housed at Carnegie Museum of Art and at the Center for Creative Photography, home to the largest and most complete collection of Smith's work, the W. Eugene Smith Archive. 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.
Smith began the project in 1955, having just resigned his high profile but stormy post at Life magazine. He was commissioned to spend three weeks in Pittsburgh and produce 100 photos for a book commemorating the city's bicentennial, Pittsburgh: Story of an American City, by noted journalist and author Stefan Lorant. 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.
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-along with the demands he placed on himself-earned him the reputation of a maverick. It was a reputation Smith cherished. He said, "I can't stand these damn shows on museum walls with neat little frames, where you look at the images as if they were pieces of art. I want them to be pieces of living."
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, 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. In a speech he delivered at the Miami Photojournalism Conference in April 1959, Smith remarked, "The main problem, I think, is that there is no end to such a subject as Pittsburgh and no way to finish it …. Any photographer's short version is bound to be a portfolio only."
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 buildings behind a screen of smoke from steel mills, and Dance of the Flaming Coke captures 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 were familiar with Pittsburgh of the time.
Some of the Pittsburgh 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 other. A young boy hangs tightly to the top of a street pole, his body draped over the sign reading "Pride Street." A young woman 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 layout control.
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 he was doomed from the start in finding a satisfactory place to publicly display the complex essay he imagined. 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 is also influenced by Smith's own selections and arrangements of the Pittsburgh prints he produced for three retrospectives of his work between 1960 and 1971.
This traveling exhibition originated at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, November 3, 2001 through February 10, 2002. The exhibition was curated by Sam Stephenson of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and organized by Linda Batis, Associate Curator of Fine Arts at Carnegie Museum of Art. It is currently on view at the International Center of Photography, New York City through June 16, 2002, and a smaller version is tentatively scheduled to be exhibited at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in early 2003.