American Dream

W. Eugene Smith's novelistic panorama of Pittsburgh captures the essence of a bygone era.

When Stefan Lorant hired W. Eugene Smith to take photographs for a big, boosterish book on Pittsburgh in 1955, the writer gave the photographer strict instructions--and a strict deadline--100 photographs in three weeks.

Smith had his own ideas. Already famous at the age of 36, Smith had published some of the best photo-essays in the history of photojournalism, including Spanish Village and Nurse Midwife, and he'd been seriously injured in World War II while shooting in Okinawa. He was equally legendary for his Olympian battles over artistic control with his editors at Life, where he wanted to pick his own pictures and design his own layouts. Before Lorant approached him he had just quit the magazine in a fury.

Buoyed by the new assignment, Smith saw no reason to change his way of working. He arrived in Pittsburgh loaded down with "20 pieces of luggage, a record player and hundreds of records and books," writes Sam Stephenson of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies, and curator of the new Smith show at the Center for Creative Photography. He immersed himself in the steel town, wandered its hills and riverbanks, haunted its libraries and churches, absorbing, reading, looking. The three-week deadline came and went, Stephenson notes, "with hardly a click of his shutter."

Lorant finally did get some photos out of the wayward photographer, after some furious exchanges and legal threats, but Smith continued to photograph Pittsburgh off and on for three years. He was trying, as he said, to make of the photo essay a whole new art form, something as rich and complex as a novel by Thomas Wolfe or a symphony by Beethoven. The 100 photographs became 17,000.

A mere fragment of this monumental work is now on view at the Center. Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Photographs, gathers together some 195 of these black and white pictures, drawing on both the Center's rich Smith archive and the Carnegie Museum of Art's collection. The city that emerges from Smith's moody pictures is dark and claustrophobic, a place where churches rise up to block off horizons and steel mills throw off nightmarish fires in the night. The altar boy flying down the church steps in one picture, his cassock billowing behind him, won't find the freedom he expected on the sidewalk below. Two nuns are heading in from the left, his mother and sisters are waiting for him, and still another church, this one across the street, obliterates the sky. Smith may have found a jovial man in "Coal Miner Laughing"--he's rolling up his sleeves, finished with work and ready for fun--but more often than not in Smith's vision the city's steelworkers are faceless and dispirited, their eyes hidden behind goggles, their faces covered in dirt.

Black, white, ethnic, working class and ruling class all find their places in Smith's novelistic panorama. The Pittsburgh rich--the likes of the Fricks, Mellons and Carnegies--dispense their largesse in libraries and gather in country clubs, while the poor tread on the Hill District's steep dirt roads and dodge laundry strung out on clotheslines. In an unusual metaphorical photo, Smith has made a visual parable about the city's insiders and outsiders. Seen through a window darkly, movers and shakers are making deals over cocktails. The city they control is reflected on the window, and so is the image of the photographer who is training his eye on their power.

Smith can be purely lyrical. Pittsburgh is a hilly city, sloping down to three rivers, and the photographer takes advantage of this natural beauty, nearly vanished though it is under a clutch of mills and houses. "Sixth Street Bridge over Allegheny River," is a nighttime burst of lights, curving elliptically over the river; the graceful curves of the bridge's cables slice into the night sky. Most of the time, though, he lets the lay of the land tell a story. "View from Arlington Heights Southside" pictures rundown worker housing in the foreground; a river separates these rundown dwellings from the skyscrapers of the Golden Triangle downtown. The houses are clear and distinct, the real thing, while the indistinct towers of the business class are a murky dream.

Like most American cities, Pittsburgh was feeling optimistic in the 1950s. It was time, at long last, to mow down the slums and create gleaming new centers of commerce. Urban renewal cut down wide swathes of nearly every American city, including Tucson, but Pittsburgh was lucky to have Smith. Not only did he document the City Council meetings that led to the demise of the poor neighborhoods, he was around to record the buildings before they fell to the bulldozers. Some of Dream Street's most interesting photos are of the Hill District, the black neighborhood also memorialized in the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays of August Wilson. Smith photographed this lost place in its last days, kids climbing street poles, cars rusting out in trash-strewn alleys, men convivially gathering in the streets.

His work is not the stuff of conventional documentary; it's too dark and blurry for that--some critics call it film noir, Stephenson settles on "chiaroscuro." But Smith's frenzy of Pittsburgh picture-taking conjured up enduring traces of a moment in time, a panoply of 1950s brides and dirty children, of graduations and strikes, of rivers and fires, of old brick houses clinging to steep hills and new steel skyscrapers going proudly up into the sky. Pittsburgh even had a Dream Street, whose simple signpost Smith captured on film, a street now disappeared as surely as these all the 1950s visions.

Smith got a pair of Guggenheims to help him finish the work, and he finally published just 88 of the pictures in Popular Photography's 1959 Photography Annual, with the proviso that the magazine would give him total editorial freedom. But when the magazine was published, Smith wrote to Ansel Adams in anguish, to apologize on behalf of the art form of photography for his failure. He wrote "a personal apology to you (and thus to photography) for the final failure, the debacle of Pittsburgh as printed."

At the age of 59, shortly after he came to the University of Arizona to teach, Smith died, his proposed Pittsburgh book unpublished. And while in his perfectionist vision, the project failed, the work remains a remarkable document, an artful portrait not of just one American city of its time, but of a moment in American time.

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