W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project
When I was discovering the world of photography as a young boy in the 1950's and again in the '60s as a young man starting to make a living as a photojournalist, my hero was W. Eugene Smith.
Smith was an impassioned photographer, who, though not as well remembered today as Henri Cartier-Bresson, was at the time America's preeminent photojournalist. He had a stormy career as a staff photographer for Life magazine and subsequently became a member of the Magnum photo agency. His WWII images together with his photo essays on Minnimatta Japan, "Country Doctor", and Albert Schweitzer have become icons of documentary photography.
In 1955 Smith was given an assignment through Magnum to spend 3 weeks shooting 100 photographs. These were intended to illustrate a forthcoming book commemorating the city of Pittsburgh's bicentennial. Instead, Smith spent more than a year on the project, eventually producing some 17,000 images which he eventually pared down to 2,000 prints.
Smith was a fanatic about not only the proper printing and reproduction of his photographs, but also the layout. His battles with the editors of Life over this are the stuff of legends. During his lifetime his Pittsburgh series saw its finest presentation in Popular Photography Annual 1959. The editors gave him thirty-eight pages, an unprecedented spread (then, or since) and more importantly gave him complete control over the layout.
The Book & The Exhibition
This year (2001) sees the production of a major exhibition and book, titled Dream Street — W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project. The exhibition begins in Pittsburgh in November at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and runs through February 2002. Subsequently it will be in New York from March — June 2002, and then Tucson and Durham, North Caroline.
The book is available now. The ISBN is 0-393-04408-4 and the cover illustration above links to Amazon.com.
Looking at Dream Street is like taking a time machine back to America in the 1950's. There's a sense of time and place that's appealing, but more importantly a style of shooting that is unique. While many of the photographs are incredibly powerful in their own right, it's when they're seen as a continuum that one gets an inkling of the Smith genius for telling a story.
If you love documentary photography, Dream Street is a must-have book. A visit to the exhibition should also be high on every photographer's list.