“One morning looking out of a window, I wondered what the hell I was doing in Pittsburgh.”
The words are photographer W. Eugene Smith’s, commenting on his obsessive project photographing the city in the mid-1950s.
They’re quoted in an exhibition catalog I picked up after a recent visit to Pittsburgh. Smith made the remark after finding himself mired in a predicament that he could see no easy way through: “the greatest of the impossible,” a magnum opus he hoped would raise the bar for photojournalism above what it had ever accomplished before.
Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project (Center for Documentary Studies/W.W. Norton, 2002, published to accompany an exhibit organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art) relates the photographer’s efforts to accomplish what started as a brief, three-week assignment to provide illustrations for a book commemorating Pittsburgh’s bicentennial in 1955.
The catalog takes you right into the heart of the Pittsburgh Project, with hundreds of images, the photo layout as first published, curatorial comments, and Smith’s own writings on the topic.
“Smith’s imagination was ignited by what he saw in Pittsburgh. The city’s three rivers cut deep valleys…providing what he called ‘vistas of melancholy.’ In one glance Smith could see the city’s monolithic factories, fiery steel mills and skyscrapers…surrounded by the dense, humble neighborhoods of Irish, Dutch, Polish, Slovak, Greek, Russian, Italian, Hungarian, Syrian, German, and African American people…Like the smokestacks, belfries and spires in each neighborhood reached upward, rising above narrow, winding streets and wood-planked row houses. Hillsides were adorned with inclined trolleys or five-hundred-step metal staircases…”
But the project spun wildly out of control, with Smith turning a routine assignment into a quest to transcend all his previous efforts in photojournalism (and, incidentally, get back at his Life magazine editors). He spent a year photographing, producing almost 17,000 images, with return visits over the next two years and many subsequent hours printing.
“The infinite mistake of Pittsburgh does not take from the fact that the set of photographs is my finest set. The toll and the toil, for miracles.”
While working on the project, Smith wrestled with personal demons (he had a history of psychological troubles, his marriage and family relationships were rocky, and his financial situation was precarious). The photos never appeared in print as he envisioned them, and he deemed the project a failure in most respects.
It’s a classic tale of photography at its most heroic, one of the culminating moments before the medium moved on to a new phase, characterized by ironic, personal, or interior visions, more likely to appear on gallery or museum walls than in the pages of mainstream magazines.
Looking back over the entire effort from a vantage point of fifty years, it’s clear that Smith was pushing against boundaries that he couldn’t overcome – limitations concerning what photographers were supposed to be about, how they were supposed to do their work, how to portray their subjects, and how the work should appear in print. He had matured professionally in a field whose limitations he rebelled against, but he nonetheless remained within the profession and largely worked within
the boundaries as defined.
Smith saw himself as a journalist and he viewed more idiosyncratic practices such as those of his colleague Robert Frank as diverging from the goal of “keeping true” to the subject. He was aware of Frank’s groundbreaking book project The Americans, but viewed the effort as straying from Smith’s own allegiance to journalistic truth.
It’s tempting to wonder how the Pittsburgh Project might have been different if Smith had embraced some of the more advanced documentary strategies pursued by artists, photographers and filmmakers through the 1950s and into the 60s and beyond. The way that he arranged and rearranged (and rearranged again) photo layout mock-ups on bulletin boards hints at the direction it might have gone.
No single one of those layouts (which we glimpse in the Dream Street catalog), but rather the entire flow of them taken together, suggest the cinematic scope of Smith’s vision. If only he had found a way to channel that vision into a working method, he might have moved beyond the limitations imposed by his profession, the publishing world and the editorial establishment at the time.