Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project
The Dream Street Pittsburgh Photography Project consumed W. Eugene Smith’s life for three years, from 1955–1958. Smith was a genius readily consumed by his artistic vision, a man inclined toward obsession, and, as Ross Gay says in his Foreword to this book, Smith was a photographer whose “ambition was somehow to articulate the ‘essence’ of a major American city, the human beings living there, the land, the world-transforming industry.” What Joyce did with Dublin or Faulkner with Oxford, Mississippi, in words, Smith strove to do in haunting black-and white photographs for Pittsburgh.
Smith was looking to capture the soul of what was then America’s iconic steel town. He took thousands of photographs of people and places in Pittsburgh. Never a minimalist, Smith was, instead, Joycean or Faulknerian in this respect, striving, it seemed, to capture every inch of the world he observed. His editors at Photography Annual winnowed down the thousands of images he produced into a 38-page photo essay, into a project Smith considered an abject failure, in his words a “debacle.”
In his introduction to the book, Sam Stephenson offers some context to the artist’s sensibility and motives: “When W. Eugene Smith drove to Pittsburgh in early March 1955, he intended to attempt ‘the greatest of the impossible,’ an epic study of the city that would lay bare the mores of America at mid-century and set new standards in the medium of photographic journalism. He was thirty-six years old and had recently resigned from his high-salaried job with Life magazine, where his World War II combat pictures and ground-breaking photo-essays, along with his rancorous fights for editorial control of his work, had made him a legend.” Smith wanted to break free from the corporate restrictions placed on him by Life and, like Joyce in Ulysses, make something never made before.
For Smith, perhaps, art was always a failure, the artistic object never living up to his striving, to his inner vision. Stephenson, a biographer of Smith, has enlarged the Photography Journal essay by three-fold and captured the heart of Smith’s brilliance, the very nature of his dreaming eye, the quality of yearning and the place of the imagination in Smith’s art. Ultimately, Smith’s breathtaking work is always about some aspect of longing. One can see it in the doleful eyes of the steel workers he photographed or the smoke and shadows of the mills he pictured.
In his introduction, Stephenson details a brief account of Smith’s life: his growing up in Wichita, Kansas; his teenage successes as a photographer; his father’s grotesque suicide when Smith was a 16; his short stay as a student at Notre Dame; his heading off to New York City; and his first real job as a staff photographer for Newsweek. Smith was successful, but he bristled under the management of editors at Life and other magazines.
He was also prone to consume excessive amounts of alcohol and amphetamines, leading, as Stephenson says, to “manic highs and lows.” He would work for three or four days at a time without sleeping, collapsing after such frenzied bouts of creativity. He suffered from debilitating migraines and found himself at one point committed to Bellevue mental hospital and Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic for three months. His marital and family relationships imploded, and his only solace and avenue of escape often seemed to be making photographs. As his personal life crumbled around him, he headed for Pittsburgh to create a photographic epic unlike any he felt that had been done before.
Smith never got to see the Pittsburgh book come to fruition. He mentioned it in 1978, the year he died, but he never completed it. Therefore, his biographer Sam Stephenson made it a reality, relying as much as possible on Smith’s choices—“Dream Street,” as Stephenson explains, “is my attempt to gather in one place the most important pictures from Smith’s Pittsburgh work.” For Smith, Dream Street was an artistic obsession. For Stephenson it appears to have been a labor of love. Perhaps much the same thing.
Every reader will have his or her own favorite images in Dream Street, but the titular photograph of the book—a shimmering black-and-white picture of a street sign perched on a metal pole and planted between a mailbox with the numbers 1517 painted on it and an old Studebaker convertible parked precariously on a hillside, abandoned by someone, perhaps, who decided to leave his old life behind—might well sum up the mysteries of Pittsburgh and of W. Eugene Smith.