- Paperback: 176 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (October 17, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393325121
- ISBN-13: 978-0393325126
- Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 0.5 x 11 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 21 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,717,817 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project Paperback – October 17, 2003
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“The fortunate match of a brilliant picture-maker with one of America's most important and arresting industrial cities at its zenith.”
- Chronicle of Higher Education
“Smith's attempt to record the paradoxes of city life in America...was harnessed to an enormous talent, and he wasn't far from the mark when he wrote that his essay would 'create history.'”
- New York Times
About the Author
Sam Stephenson is a writer and consultant at the Center for Documentary Studies.
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The first free-lance assignment Smith was offered after resigning from "Life" was to produce 100 prints for a book commemorating the bicentennial of Pittsburgh - a "chamber of commerce"-type exercise in civic boosterism and self-congratulation. The man who hired him expected it would take Smith three weeks. Smith arrived in Pittsburgh in March 1955 and spent the next month reading about and exploring the city and parts of the next two years taking more than 17,000 negatives. His Pittsburgh project was to be his "Ulysses", his Ninth Symphony. Via a photo-essay of epic proportion, Smith wanted to show, in general, "the relationship of industrial to man" and, more specifically, to portray the city of Pittsburgh in all its diversity as "a living entity", a single organism. He never was able to wrestle the project into a form that was remotely satisfactory to him. (Eighty-eight of his Pittsburgh pictures were published in 1959 by "Popular Photography", but Smith was extremely unhappy with the piece.) When he died, he left behind the 17,000 negatives, as well as 6,000 5 x 7 work prints, and over 1200 master prints.
Fifty years later, DREAM STREET gives us an idea of what Smith was trying to achieve. Editor James Stephenson selected 145 photographs of Smith's Pittsburgh photographs and assembled them into ten portfolios. The book also contains two essays on Smith and his Pittsburgh Project, one by Stephenson, the other by Alan Trachtenberg, as well as a handful of snippets from writings by Smith on his objectives and aspirations (some of which flirt with incoherent nonsense).
The book is not altogether satisfactory. The quality of the photographic reproductions is less than ideal, details on each individual picture are inconveniently provided via four pages of notes at the end of the volume, the content of several of the portfolios (especially the last one of street signs) becomes redundant, and too many pages contain two photographs per page (one such page would have been too many, and there are more than two dozen). In general, the book has a cluttered feel. But something is better than nothing, and DREAM STREET does contain some remarkable, and unforgettable, images.
The book also constitutes a special portrait of Pittsburgh. Those who originally hired Smith wanted to celebrate and glorify Pittsburgh, which then was still a swaggering and bellowing industrial city. But Smith had a highly sensitive social conscience, he was an all-caps LIBERAL, and by his choice of subjects and the manner in which he photographed them he instead highlighted and personified the social costs of unfettered industrial capitalism. Pittsburgh might have been the Steel City (and many of Smith's photographs attest to that moniker) but it also was a collection of people who stoically, though sometimes fearfully and desperately, went on trying to eat, play, drink, and simply live amidst all that toil. Smith's photographs do indeed depict "the relationship of the industrial to man" and it is plain the pole that Smith identified with. Coincidentally, several days ago I saw an Internet piece that touted Pittsburgh as presently the most liveable city in the United States. Were we able to resurrect W. Eugene Smith, it would be interesting to see whether he and his cameras would support that claim.
Smith had been badly wounded, in the Pacific, during the Second World War. He had been capturing "the action" were it occurred, up front, and it took a year's convalesces before he took his next photo. He was cantankerous and obsessive, a literal "speed freak" long before it has become the drug of choice for so many. After the war he landed a "dream" job, with high salary, for Life magazine, during its very prime, before TV ended the reign of the photo-news magazines. He produced numerous memorable photo-essays for Life, including one on a rural doctor; a mid-wife in South Carolina; and Albert Schweitzer's medial efforts in Africa.
"Difficult" on the issue of the editorial control of his photos, he finally quit his cushy Life job. Within a few weeks, he accepted a three-week assignment to provide photographs for a book by Stefan Lorant, Pittsburgh The Story of an American City which would be a paean to Pittsburgh's "renaissance," and its ever so enlightened "civic leadership." (Hey, we finally cleaned-up the air!) I still have my copy, purchased new in 1964, for the hefty price of $12.50. Smith missed the three week deadline by a mile; he had barely taken a single photo by then. It just wasn't his style. First he had to ascertain the "lay of the land," by simply observing the daily life. And that is what he came to photograph, as announced in his grant applications. To photograph what Joyce wrote about: the daily slices of life of ordinary people. He identified various themes that he would pursue: class, religion, ethnicity, the legal system, work, and numerous others. He captured what people did, especially the children, in an era before digital distractions. He also preserved forever, with an unfailing eye, the very essence of the city, and the times.
I agree with some reviewers criticisms of the book. The photo captions should not be in a separate appendix; each photo deserves its own page. The irony of the street signs was over-represented, yet a deeply personal one was missing. But mainly there just should have been more, and more again of the photos this remarkable, quirky, obsessive man took. I'm sure publishers can cite their reasons, with lack of interest being the top of the list.
Certain themes resonated strongly: the dispensing of justice in the courtroom and the nature of work itself. It was an era of hard, dirty, difficult and at times dangerous work. It was a time when the city was "the steel center of the world." On page 32 there is a tough, burly guy playing poker, relaxing with "the boys" after work, having a deserved beer. The tablecloth is a newspaper. No doubt he is of Slovakian origin, as were so many steel workers, and you might guess he is a turn-foreman. An essential Pittsburgh image.
One can still walk "Swann's Way," and it is largely unchanged since Proust described it in the early part of the 20th century. For two summers, five days a week, in the `60's, I'd walk along the street on page 110. The street is still there, but my destination, as pictured, is long gone: US Steel's Homestead District Works. But the street today is only so much boarded-up urban desolation. A shopping mall was placed on the site of the former steel mill, where the goods from China can be purchased. And at the hotel, also on the same site, the receptionist had no idea what the one remaining structure, the smoke stacks to the 45 inch slab mill represented.
For anyone who lives in, or has ever lived in Pittsburgh, the book is more than a 5-star; it is an essential purchase to maintain contact with the roots of one's time and place. But for everyone else, those who now contemplate the lack of "work," all those recent college graduates who struggled with all the assignments and tests (yes, all that make-work), only to find that no one wants them, this book should inspire ruminations on the nature of work and the "economy." Only a madman would want to return to that era of hard, dirty work when so many technological advances have made it obsolete. But what is clearly not obsolete, in fact, it is not even on the agenda, is the discussion meaningful ways of providing a system which results in productive labor, and an equitable distribution of the fruits of that labor.
And less I forget, the street sign not taken: "Liberty Ave." From number 1000 on that street, I was sent my draft notice.