W. Eugene Smith's
Pittsburgh Project

Sam Stephenson, Editor
Gene Smith worked at Life Magazine in its halcyon days --- during World War II and immediately afterwards. He was a highly-paid professional, earning the equivalent of $150,000 a year (in 2006 dollars). He covered some of the most brutal wartime battles --- Guam, Okinawa, Saipan, the Philippines, Iwo Jima.

Up until he left in 1954, he was given over fifty assignments, the kinds of projects that Life specialized in --- a country doctor in Colorado, a coal-mining town in Wales, Schweitzer's village hospital in Africa, daily life in a Spanish village, a black nurse-midwife in South Carolina. With Life's astonishing circulation --- the magazine, at its peak, had a weekly printing of 8,500,000 --- Smith's photographs were influential, highly honored, seen by millions.

But he was the Compleat Photographer --- wanted to have total control of not only what he produced, but how it was reproduced. The editors at Life found him impossible to work with. Nine years after the end of the war, he took off on his own, and immediately landed a contract to work with historian Stefan Lorant producing a book commemorating Pittsburgh's bicentennial.

Smith began work in early 1955 --- and, according to him, never finished. He worked for three years, produced the required 400 shots for Lorant, but then went on to make another 17,000 photographs --- 600 as master-prints --- for his own project. It was to be called "Labyrinthian Walk," with essays and meditation on Pittsburgh. The photographs he accumulated --- of which some 175 are presented here --- are brilliant, sobering; an astonishing mix of shots of children playing, politicians debating, debutantes dancing, steelworkers surrounded by flame and dust and dirt, and most of all, the havoc that was the ecological nightmare called Pittsburgh: belching chimneys and darkness and grime and men and women prematurely aged in what they used to call The Glory of American Industrial Might.

For the photographer, it became, indeed, a Labyrinthian Walk. Smith was to pour himself into the project, impoverishing himself (he said he financed it "from the lining of my stomach,") destroying his family life, and, finally, driving him to distraction. He talked Photography Annual into carrying eighty-eight photographs with essay in their 1959 annual, but he was far from satisfied.

Indeed, Smith's inspirations were epic: Joyce's Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake, Thomas Wolfe, Beethoven (he had a personal collection of jazz and classical music totally some 20,000 discs). What he produced was so gargantuan that he could never bring it together, never bring it to completion. We were reminded of Todd, in John Barth's Floating Opera, working on a philosophical history project that he never completed. Rather, each week he would shift the papers representing his work to date from one to the other of the many peach baskets he kept on the floor of his office. It was so grand in concept --- better, it was too grand a concept --- that it could never ever be completed. Thus Smith's Pittsburgh project.

Smith was an overachiever. He was always on the edge --- he had gone into breakdown years before, was found wandering around Manhattan in his skivvies, had to be salted away for months. There is no doubt --- especially to this reader --- that his wartime experiences contributed to this edginess. He lived and ate and slept with the grunt soldiers who were caught up in some of the most bitter fighting in World War II. He speaks of the joy of working with them, but, too, the stink of the dead, the dismal destruction of two great war machines going at each other was the climax of the last years fighting Japan.

Unfortunately for him, he was saddled with an impeccable artistic sense of what black-and-white photography could accomplish. Alan Trachtenberg, in his exquisite essay that concludes this volume, suggests that Smith's photographs capture what was patently contrary to America's most precious delusions of the 50s --- the glories of the American Way, the wonder of our industrial might, the pretense of ease in the happy-go-lucky Eisenhower world. "It was a cold place and I photographed it coldly," said Smith.

Trachtenberg notes that Smith had come to Pittsburgh with "his demons in high gear," to make an essay "on man, machine, and society." What we are left with, he suggests, are pictures of "brokeness, aloneness, mutilation." In the portraits of this bleak city, there are few smiles: even the children seem haunted, immersed as they are in a filthy, smoke-infested world in which they are growing up. There are countless shots of men or women trudging their path alone. Portraits of steelworkers emphasize the grime and the sweat of their jobs. Even scenic views of the three great rivers are dark, brooding, ominous.

Smith lived for three years knee-deep in the blood and stink of a vicious war (all carefully cropped from the pages of the magazine that paid his way). He also had to live with the failure of the war to lead us into a promised paradise-on-earth. It is entirely possible that Smith was driven to distraction by the bitter contrast between the dream of an Ideal Post-War America and the black-and-white reality so exquisitely limned in these duotones. For no matter what he thought or wrote, his photographs gave the lie to America's dream of the new, wonderful world.

This is a man who was driven --- so driven, that after finally giving up on the project, he wrote,

    Pittsburgh, to me, is a failure...the main problem, I think, is that there is no end to such a subject as Pittsburgh and no way to finish it.

The editor, and Norton, are to be commended for giving us such a sensitive book so that the reader can see, without adornment, a vision of a driven man, along with his self-proclaimed "failure."

--- Ignacio Schwartz

Go to an interview with Smith from Dream Street


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