Saturday, May 5, 2012

Obsessed With...Pittsburgh?

If you're a certain age, or you have an interest in journalism, the name W. Eugene Smith will ring a bell. At least one of his images will be stuck in your head: the kids walking into the woods on the last page of that pioneering coffee-table book, The Family of Man, maybe one of his iconic World War II photos, or the photograph of the mother bathing her daughter, severely deformed from radiation poisoning, which appeared in his exposé of Minimata Syndrome. He's one of those names which come up when people talk about the glory days of Life and other photojournalism magazines.

One of his famous assignments was to go photograph Albert Schweizer at his hospital in Lambaréné, in French West Africa for Life, and when they came out he flew into a rage and quit the magazine's staff. Hearing he was at loose ends, in 1955, a historian named Stefan Lorent, who was working with some people who were putting out a commemorative book about Pittsburgh for its bicentennial, invited him to document their city in photographs. To their pleased surprise, he accepted. He moved to town, and started shooting.

And shooting. And shooting. And printing. And shooting. And re-printing. And shooting some more. By the time he gave up, in 1958, he'd amassed over 17,000 photographs, too many to publish, too many to display. There was a tiny excerpt printed in a photo magazine, but Smith had clearly overachieved. To put it mildly.

Gilles Mora, the director of Montpellier's Pavillon Populaire, has selected 160 of these images for a small show at the Pavillon Populaire, entitled The Impossible Labyrinth, and it's drawing crowds. I've been twice, and I'm still trying to figure out a bunch of stuff.


To attempt the portrait of a city would be impossible... The most one gets is the rumor of the city. -- W. Eugene Smith, in a note to himself, 1955.

The show is laid out thematically, for the most part, so that similar images are all in one place. The photos are in several stages of completion, and some of the images have Smith's notes in red grease pencil on them, with ideas for the next stage of printing the negative. So we have a wall of steelworkers and a steelworkers' strike, a wall of shots of houses and apartment buildings, a wall that deals with some sort of street festival, a room of images of kids playing, another with nothing but street signs, some interior and exterior shots of banks, all shot in Smith's trademarked black-and-white, with a finish that I can only describe as "greasy." You go through this exhibition and you feel like you've got some of the industrial grime from the city you've just spent time in on you, despite the fact that a relatively small proportion of the show is dedicated to the heavy industry one associates with Pittsburgh. 

It may be Mora's selection, but there's something haunting here, a palpable search for something that's not found, coming out of all of these photos. Which, I guess, is another way of saying there are very few great images here. There are attempts at them, some kind of sophomoric, like the patterns in the decorated pavement shot from high above, others more sophisticated, like the shot of the couple returning wedding presents or another couple playing shuffleboard with the woman laughing, her hand to her mouth, which seem to want to be great, but...aren't. 

There is no sense of what was going on with Smith personally during the three years he worked on this project here, and I began to speculate as a result. Smith really isn't known as a photojournalist whose work crossed the boundary into art. He isn't shown at galleries as much as, say, Dorothea Lange or Russell Lee. And yet I'm sure he felt, as anyone who views this show will, that he had art in him. Reportedly his inability to "finish" the Pittsburgh project, whose artifacts he just packed away, distressed him for the rest of his life. (He died in 1978). What's the obstacle here? 

Dream Street, the good one

Some of it is, I think, that in trying to please his employers, he went for the easy shot. There's a whole room of street signs: Rescue St., Breed St., Hope St., Loyal Way, and the corner of Ophelia and Hamlet. With the exception of Dream St., these are all represented as just what they are, no context, no representation of anything but the sign itself. Dream St., of course, is one of those pictures he must have come upon and said a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of photography. (He should also have added thanks to Raymond Loewy, who designed that Studebaker that's half-floating along there, too). It's far and away the best photo in the show, and loses nothing by being reproduced in gargantuan fashion at the entrance to the first room. 
The Wikipedia article on Smith makes reference to his "longterm consumption" of amphetamines and alcohol, which may have helped create the "impossible labyrinth" of the Pittsburgh project. Certainly there are pictures here which have their obsessive qualities: a long row of apartment buildings with their windows reflecting the sky, parking lots shot from far off. The repetition for the sake of repetition seems to be part of his style. And this might also be the key to the "what on earth did he see here?" reaction I got to some of the photos, as well as the "what is this all about" reaction to the street fair series. How on earth can you shoot a street fair and not include anything that gives you a clue as to its purpose? Or, rather, why would you do that?

Here is a photo essay which is primarily about the strength and quality of its execution, rather than the subject itself, which makes it unusual. -- Note by W. Eugene Smith, 1957

There's no telling what went wrong here, but the wreckage is at least a view of a place nobody would think to make great art out of with a camera. The mid-'50s, middle America, the innocence which still hung around the edges of American society, that's all here in abundance. And I'm trusting -- which, given previous shows at the Pav Pop, maybe I shouldn't -- that Mora's made a representative, unbiased selection here. At any rate, it's a disturbing and yet pleasant show, and I recommend at least one visit. 

And, speaking of impossible labyrinths, on the way out there's a room where you can look through books of Smith's photographs and read criticism of his work. There are two maps on the wall, one of the U.S. with a red push-pin stuck in Pittsburgh, the other a brand-new street map of the city which just blew my mind. No wonder Smith photographed street-signs: I've never seen a city with so many, mostly short, streets. It would be a nightmare to be a cab-driver there. 

William Eugene Smith: Pittsburgh, l'impossible labyrinthe (1955-1958), at the Pavillon Populaire, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. On view until June 3. Open daily except Monday, 10am-1pm, 2pm-6pm. Admission free.


  1. Extremely good to read about this exhibition, which I know I won't see unless I visit Montpellier. "Greasy" finish -- that's a pertinent and helpful observation. Thanks for this view into Smith. Curtis

  2. Smith lived in the West 20's in NYC in the late 1950s and early 1960s in what later became known as "The Jazz Loft" because many musicians used the space to practice and perform. The list is extensive. Thelonious Monk and Hal Overton rehersed the 10 piece band there for the famous Town Hall concert. Sonny Clark, Zoot Sims, and many others were frequent visitors.


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