W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Photographs
Carnegie, Nov/Dec 2001 by Ellen S. Wilson
“Don’t expect,” wrote photographer W Eugene Smith, “a point-by-point hand-led tour. This is an experience as an intensely curious visitor (perhaps a new resident) might discover it.”
Smith wrote those notes to himself as he began his Pittsburgh project, what he later called “the finest set of photographs I have ever produced.” With a clear vision and a spectacular result, it is puzzling that Smith also considered the project a failure, and that until now the final results have never been exhibited together.
Smith was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1918. His mother, Nettie Lee Caplinger Smith, was an amateur photographer. His father, William, lost his grain business in 1936 and shot himself. Doctors were unable to save him with a blood transfusion from Gene.
Smith had already had one photograph, of the drought-parched bed of the Arkansas River, appear in the New York Times. Shortly after his father’s suicide, he left Kansas and enrolled at the University of Notre Dame on a photography scholarship. School did not suit Smith, however and he left after one year and moved to New York, where he worked on free-lance assignments.
It was during World War II, photographing combat at close range and becoming involved personally with the soldiers, that Smith’s sense of mission and its role in his photography began to emerge. As Stephenson writes in Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project (WW. Norton and Company and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University [a Lyndhurst Book], 2001), “His pictures began to express a tragic lyricism infused with a benevolent melancholy. He shaded his prints with ever-deepening contrasts between dark and light, creating a visual metaphor for the basic struggle that he was witnessing in civilization, and feeling waged within himself.”
Badly wounded in the head and left hand in 1945, Smith spent a year recovering and then, as a well-paid staff member at Life, completed more than 50 assignments for the magazine. Some of those photo-essays, Stephenson says, are “among the most significant in the history of photojournalism.”
Life in those pre-television days was a dominant cultural force as well as a major news source, and a position such as Smith had was a rare opportunity. Smith, however, was not happy. He wanted complete control over printing his negatives and arranging his layouts, spent much more time on small assignments than his editors felt was necessary, and was generally cantankerous and difficult to deal with. “The magazine wanted a reliable photographer who could accept the boundaries of given assignments and meet deadlines,” Stephenson writes. “Smith wanted to change the world with his pictures.”
All of this is well documented in his numerous notes to himself and letters to family and friends, of which he kept copies. “He had a significant ego and some of his copied letters feel like a paper trail left by him for future researchers to follow,” Stephenson says.
“He liked being known as the tortured artist. I think he loved that legend, fed off of it and fueled it.”
This ego, his burgeoning ambitions, and the recurrent conflicts with his editors led Smith to resign from Life and then try to prove he could survive without it. “Smith would have tried something this large no matter where he had gone,” Stephenson says. His mother, long a powerful presence in his life, had recently died, and Smith “erupted with this massive project. He was primed for something like this. But we are lucky that it was Pittsburgh. He caught one of the most richly historic and important American cities in its prime.”
When Stefan Lorant hired Smith to produce 100 photographs of contemporary Pittsburgh for a book in honor of the city’s bicentennial, it was impossible for the job not to grow well beyond its assigned boundaries.
“Pittsburgh at that time was an industrial dynamo,” says Linda Batis, associate curator of Contemporary Art at Carnegie Museum of Art, who organized the exhibition for Pittsburgh. “It was so important to the American economy, and the city was at a moment of tremendous transition.”
Smith, in transition as well, found something of a portrait of himself here. Stephenson writes, “The haunting, eternal elements of an evolving, conflicted modern world – elements that first entered his photography in a much different setting during World War II — were on display in everyday Pittsburgh: simultaneous images of glory and despair, production and destruction, past and present, human and machine, the individual and collective, the ordinary and spectacular.”
“He was aware,” Batis agrees, “of the human undercurrent. You see the Duquesne Club next to kids playing in the dirt – and there is no doubt that the kids are having fun.
“On the one hand, he had an agenda,” she explains. “On the other, he was trying to create a tapestry of the city by photographing disparate elements and weaving them together, and it was the weaving together that gave him such a hard time.”
Smith fell into the same sort of conflicts over artistic control with Lorant that he had had with Life. He finally fulfilled his obligation by turning in the required prints (two years after beginning the planned three-week assignment) and then, aided by two Guggenheim fellowships, worked to organize the Pittsburgh photographs and find a publisher.
Again, however, Smith’s need for complete editorial control prevented most magazines from accepting his conditions. He finally published a selection of Pittsburgh photographs in 38 pages of Photography Annual 1959, and wrote the accompanying text. An editor, however, might have been helpful. Smith was accustomed to the larger pages of Life, and his layouts did not do justice to his pictures, nor did his text. Smith himself called the result “a debacle.”
While a few of the photographs appeared in scattered publications and one retrospective exhibition, Smith turned his attention to other projects – the important series on the effects of poisoned sea water in Minimata, Japan, as well as scenes outside his Sixth Avenue loft in New York. The turmoil of his personal life – rocky marriages, a dependence on amphetamines, and never enough money – continued to rage, and his health to deteriorate, until his death in 1978 after a massive stroke.
The simple history of the Pittsburgh Project still does not explain why the photographs have not been given a museum exhibition until now (2001). One reason, according to Stephenson, is Pittsburgh itself, and the fact that its placement in middle America has kept it off the world’s cultural radar screen.
“For some reason, here in the United States we ignore cities like Pittsburgh,” he says. “If Smith had done an essay of this magnitude on New York or
London or Paris, it would have been exhibited by now.”
Additionally, Smith’s most famous photographs tend to be portraits of individuals, but in this project, the city itself is the individual. That was Smith’s intention. The result, however, is atypical of his body of work.
And finally, Stephenson speculates that Smith’s own personality accounts in part for the neglect of the project. “We’re just now beginning a reassessment of his entire body of work,” he explains. “Smith’s personality was enormous, and he rubbed a lot of people in the official photography world the wrong way… I think we needed 20 years of separation to start looking at his career anew.”
The exhibition was made up primarily of photographs in the collection of Carnegie Museum of Art, 500 of which were donated to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh by Stefan Lorant and given to the Museum of Art in 1982. One third of the photographs are from the collection of the W. Eugene Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
“While the exhibition is not a reconstruction – nobody can get into an artist’s head – it is modeled on what Smith might have done,” Batis explains. Of the 16,000 negatives Smith shot, he repeatedly singled out about 200, and those are the ones being shown here. After an introductory section, there are 10 thematic sections loosely modeled on themes that interested Smith. A room at the end of the exhibition will include a selection of 5×7 work prints, arranged the way Smith did, on boards.
“This section will elucidate how he cropped, how he picked images out of larger shots,” Batis says. “It is a resource area intended to flesh out the process through which he worked. Smith was a very thoughtful photographer, and he would go back to places again and again to catch them at a particular time of day.”
While Smith’s perfectionism and sense of mission made him a great documentary photographer, they exacted a high price. Two years before he came to Pittsburgh, he wrote to his mother, “I have a cult of followers throughout the world who look up to me as the shining light and the protector of integrity and as the one who never compromises my beliefs before pressures of the commercial and outside world. Perhaps this… is a reason I am unhappy because I am afraid I will let these people and the world down …..”
Such an ego can be a burden. The image of the tormented artist was one Smith cultivated, as Stephenson says, but the torment, avoidable or not, was real. Smith’s inability to compromise on anything made him a difficult employee, husband, and friend, but gave the world an opportunity to see itself in unflinching light and dark.
Carnegie Museum of Art