Editor's note: The Center for Creative Photography in July 2002 provided source material to Resource Library Magazine for the following article. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, or if you wish to purchase the illustrated exhibition catalogue, please contact the Center for Creative Photography directly through either this phone number or web address:
Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Photographs
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 through 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." (left: W. Eugene Smith, Pittsburgh, ca. 1955, Photograph by Fran Erzen, gelatin silver print, © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith, Collection of the Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona/W. Eugene Smith Archive)
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. (left: Untitled (view from south of Forbes Street, near Forbes Field), ca. 1955, Photograph by W. Eugene Smith, © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith, Collection of the Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona/W. Eugene Smith Archive)
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.
An accompanying publication, Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project, a 176-page book edited by guest curator Sam Stephenson and illustrated with 175 duotone photographs, is available in the CCP Museum Store. Dream Street is a Lyndhurst Book, published by W.W. Norton & Co. in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
W. Eugene Smith biographical information
Born in 1918, Smith began his career at the age of 14 as a stringer for newspapers in Wichita, Kansas, his hometown. A photograph of the drought-parched bed of the Arkansas River that he took while still in his teens appeared in The New York Times in 1934. His work earned him a photography scholarship to Notre Dame University, but Smith abandoned his scholarship after the first year to pursue a career in New York City. In the years before World War II, Smith's fame grew, and his photographs were seen in the nation's best-known magazines, including Newsweek, Life, Collier's, and Harper's Bazaar, as well as in The New York Times. By 1939 Smith was a full-time staff photographer at Life, but he resigned after two years, disappointed with his routine assignments.
World War II brought more exciting subject matter. Smith spent two years photographing 16 frontline combat missions in the Pacific theater for Ziff-Davis publishing company. In 1944, he rejoined Life and captured the brutal struggles for Guam, Saipan, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Iwo Jima. Smith's craft matured in the three years he spent on the front lines. His images portrayed a tragedy that transcended the drama and horrors of combat, but his career as a war correspondent ended on Okinawa in 1945 when he was struck in the head and left hand by fragments from a Japanese mortar round.
After recuperating for more than a year, Smith returned to Life magazine, where he took on more than 50 assignments from 1947 to 1954. His photo essays, such as "Spanish Village." depicting the drama of life pared to essentials, "Nurse-midwife," showing nobility amid shocking poverty, "Country Doctor," about a Spartan life dedicated to healing, and numerous others, are considered major works in the history of photojournalism. Although he gained fame and commanded a high salary at Life, Smith constantly wrangled with editors for artistic control of his work. Arguments grew increasingly vitriolic, and in 1954, Smith quit and joined Magnum, the photographers' cooperative, which sent him to Pittsburgh on the Lorant assignment.
The W. Eugene Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography
The Center for Creative Photography (CCP) is home to the world's largest and most complete archive representing the life's work of photographer W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978). This collection was researched extensively by Sam Stephenson, the curator of Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Photographs. Sixty-nine vintage prints from CCP's collection of more than 650 Pittsburgh photographs were chosen to be included in the exhibition, along with facsimiles of relevant correspondence and unpublished design layouts of Smith's epic Pittsburgh project.
CCP acquired the Smith Archive-consisting of more than 3,500 fine prints and 300 linear feet of archival materials-between 1977 and 1978. The fine print collection provides an astonishingly deep and distinguished survey of W. Eugene Smith's contributions to documentary photography and photojournalism as it also attests to his legendary vision and artistry as a master printer. Many of his most recognizable images and essays are included in the archive collection, including extensive representation of Country Doctor, Nurse Midwife, Spanish Village, and Minamata, and one of the world's finest and rarest prints of A Walk to Paradise Garden.
The research collection of the archive contains his vast files of correspondence, book dummies, trip journals, exhibition files, audio-visual materials, photographic materials, portraits of Smith at various times of his life, and artifacts such as Smith's typewriter, camera equipment, scrapbooks, and personal library. Voluminous files of negatives and contact sheets document Smith's photographic career, from his adolescent years, his earliest commercial assignments, and his documentation of the war in the Pacific, to the many photo assignments Smith created for Life magazine, his trips to Japan, his massive portrait of Pittsburgh, and his unfinished masterpiece, the "Big Book." Additional resources chart his involvement with the Photo League, Magnum Photo, and his various teaching and writing projects.
The W. Eugene Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography has been the key resource for significant Smith research and important publication and exhibition projects undertaken over the last twenty years, including W. Eugene Smith: Master of the Photographic Essay (1981), W. Eugene Smith: Let Truth Be the Prejudice (1985), Japan Through the Eyes of W. Eugene Smith (1996), and W. Eugene Smith: Photographs 1934-1975 (1998).
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