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W. Eugene Smith

Text from New History of Photography.

Pittsburgh, a "photographic essay" by W. Eugene Smith

An assignment which normally would have taken two to three-and-a-half weeks to complete was turned into a tortuous three-year ordeal by W. Eugene Smith that resulted in his essentially unfinished masterpiece, the 'Pittsburgh" story. He made 11,000 negatives over five months in 1955 and a few weeks in 1957. During this time, Smith's marriage was breaking up, his health deteriorated, he was threatened with a lawsuit, he ran up huge debts with the agency Magnum Photos, and he went bankrupt himself, leaving his family near destitution, despite the two successive Guggenheim Fellowships he received.

Born in 1918 and raised in Kansas, Smith began his professional career in his teens supplying pictures to the local newspaper. Advancing to national magazines, he rapidly acquired an international reputation for his bold photographs of the Second World War in the Pacific. While on the staff of Life magazine, Smith produced the classic photographic essays "Country Doctor", "Spanish Village', and "Nurse Midwife" in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With these three features he set a new standard for evocative picture stories.

Increasingly frustrated with the restrictions of working for the magazine, he resigned at the end of 1954 over an essay he had done on Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Smith soon joined Magnum where he obtained the Pittsburgh commission. Noted picture editor Stefan Lorant needed some photographs for a pictorial history of Pittsburgh, a book intended to support an urban renewal program in one of the most polluted cities in the United States. Smith received an advance of $500 on a guaranteed final fee of $1,200.

He saw in this commission the opportunity to expand the form of the photographic essay to the dimension of "an epic in the tradition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass" (W. S. Johnson). Smith moved to Pittsburgh where he improvised a darkroom in his apartment and hired an assistant and a local guide. Working with relentless intensity, he invested all of his financial resources in the project. This project was hampered not only by Smith's often self-destructive personality and stubhotness, but also by bad luck and legal complications. Lorant's book finally appeared only in 1964 (with 64 of Smith's images).

Attempting to salvage the work, Magnum arranged for publishing agreements with Look and Life, but they collapsed because Smith, dissatisfied with the page layouts, kept modifying them in an attempt to weave a complex fabric of themes and metaphors with multiple connotations and resonance. The Pittsburgh story has never been published in any form approaching his book-length intentions. The most complete version, in his own layout, comprising 88 photographs covering 37 pages, was published in 1959 Photography Annual. Smith considered it a failure.

The Pittsburgh project is a remarkable milestone of his noble effort to push the photographic essay into a larger dimension. Smith finally achieved that goal with Minamata in 1975.

Stuart Alexander


 


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