Sam Stephenson's dedication and perseverance to bringing W. Eugene Smith's immense "Pittsburgh Project" into view deserves unstinting kudos, praise and thanks from every viewer and photographer who has ever wondered about Smith's Pittsburgh project and asked themselves: "I wonder what happened during those four years? And what about the thousands (15,000? 17,000? 20,000?) of photographs he took?" This book has most of the answers, and while Alan Trachtenberg's essay is very informative, it is Stephenson's documentary digging, discovering, editing and yes, dreaming about what Smith intended that makes this volume so valuable.
So why four, instead of five stars? Some technical printing issues and editorial choices about presentation. To wit:
1) The reproduction of the photos is just so-so. Blacks not saturated, whites are gray, the image surface is flat. Smith's prints sing; the book's reproductions only hum. I know high-quality printing would make the book cost ten times as much. It would be worth it for everyone who has never seen a Smith exhibition print.
2) The individual notes on the photographs are all collected together at the end of the book. I know this is a cost issue -- but it's darned annoying to constantly flip back and forth to read the notes about the images, rather than scan them while in the flow. Smith's photographs form a narrative, and the words and captions are important, even if Smith himself didn't always think so.
3) There are not enough examples of Smith's working style. I saw some of his contact sheets from this project -- they are amazing! So are his work prints. More documentation on how he shot, printed, edited and re-edited his work would be a help in understanding both the successes and failures of this Sisyphean project. Stephenson does a good job writing about this process, but more examples of the work product images would make it much more powerful. It's still pretty powerful stuff!
If you don't know about W. Eugene Smith or this famous "failed" project, there are lots of published resources about the man and his images, such as Let Truth Be the Prejudice: W. Eugene Smith, His Life and Photographs or Great Photographic Essays from Life. But this book is the ONLY in-depth look at this particular Smith undertaking, and more important, the only attempt to re-create the flow of one of the greatest -- however flawed -- photo essays of all time. Even Jim Hughes' exhaustive and emotionally exhausting biography of Smith W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance : The Life and Work of an American Photographer does not provide the details and context Stephenson provides, nor the photos themselves.
W. Eugene Smith's images influenced my life and work from the late '60s onward, including my first career as a newspaper and magazine photojournalist. Even so, I never met the man. Aside from his published photographs in books and magazines, I encountered his photographs up close three times -- and all three involved the Pittsburgh essay images.
The first time was his exhibit of 600+ images at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1970. The whole building was filled with his enormous, meticulous black-and-white prints -- Wagnerian in their visual and emotional impact. Many of the best-known Pittsburgh images were there, glowing with Smith's trademark printing technique of deep blacks and brilliant white highlights -- they were truly operatic in scale and visual and emotional intensity.
The next encounter was at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh a few years later. I casually asked the reference librarian in the photo archives area if they had other pictures of the city besides the historical images on file, and she handed me a looseleaf binder with some prints spilling out of it. I nearly fainted! There were dozens of Smith's famous 5x7 work prints stuffed into the binder, together with a small selection of larger "publication" prints for reproduction. Maybe these had been passed on to the library by Stefan Lorant, who originally gave Smith the assignment to make some photos in Pittsburgh? I don't know. It was like discovering DaVinci sketches shoved under a park bench.
Among them were three or four variations of the backlit image of a woman viewing a map at a city council meeting, and I studied them closely because I recognized the one Smith preferred. I had seen it published many times and at the exhibit in New York -- it's in this book as well. The small prints were the intermediate stage Smith used for editing and layout, and from which he selected his final exhibition or publication prints.
I sat until closing time looking at the variations of particular images -- versions he liked but ultimately rejected -- or about which he just couldn't make up his mind. When I returned the binder I told the librarian" "Take good care of these, they're very valuable!" "Really? I thought they were just snapshots," she replied. I hope they are still there.
My final encounter with the Pittsburgh essay was some 25 years later, after Smith's death and his archives had been acquired by the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. I managed to spend an afternoon there with a stack of his contact sheets. After some 30 years of looking, I got to see all the way back into Smith's shooting style. How he explored a subject with multiple views and approaches, and how he could grab a quick snapshot when all the elements came together in that instant. He was the master of the long form photo essay and also of that "decisive moment." I was awed by what I saw in those contacts -- and I wish Stephenson and the publishers could have found a bit more space to show some of them to the rest of us.
Maybe they'll go online someday. Maybe.
If you love great black-and-white photography, the long-form photo essay, the 1950s, Pittsburgh and all that has vanished from America since that time, Dream Street will give you something to look at and think about. Yes, and dream, too.