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W. Eugene Smith

W. Eugene Smith

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William Eugene Smith was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1918. He began taking photographs in 1932 and early subjects included sports, aviation and the Dust Bowl.

After studying at Notre Dame University for a year he joined the staff of Newsweek. In 1938 Smith became a freelance photographer working for Life Magazine, Collier's Weekly and the New York Times.

In 1942 Smith became a war correspondent and spent most of the next three years covering the Pacific War. His most dramatic photographs were taken during the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945. On 23rd May Smith was seriously wounded by a Japanese shell fragment. He was taking a photograph at the time and the metal passed through his left hand before hitting the face. Smith was forced to return to the United States and he had to endure two years of hospitalization and plastic surgery.

In 1947 Smith joined Life Magazine and over the next seven years produced a series of photo-essays that established him as the world's most important photojournalist. This included essays entitled: Country Doctor, Hard Times on Broadway, Spanish Village, Southern Midwife and Man of Mercy.

Granted a Guggenheim Fellowship (1956-57), Smith began a massive picture essay of Pittsburgh. This was followed by another large project on New York (1958-59). Smith also taught photojournalism at New York's New School for Social Research and was president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers.

William Eugene Smith died in 1978.

W. Eugene Smith - History

W. Eugene Smith (American, 1918–1978) privileged honesty and technique in his carefully sequenced photo essays, becoming one of the most respected documentary photographers in mid-twentieth-century America. Smith photographed for local newspapers in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, but became critical of journalistic practices after witnessing sensationalist coverage of his father’s suicide. He attended the University of Notre Dame on a scholarship for photography, then worked for Newsweek, and in 1938 joined the Black Star photo agency. A major injury kept him from active combat, so during World War II he photographed on aircraft carriers, accompanying troops on sixteen combat missions. Working for Life magazine intermittently between 1939 and 1955, he produced several renowned photo essays, including “Country Doctor” (1948), “Life without Germs” (1949), and “Spanish Village” (1951).[1] Desiring more control over the sequence and layout of his photo essays, he joined the Magnum agency in 1955 and, at the behest of seasoned picture-magazine editor Stefan Lorant, began his most acclaimed project, a series of photographs of Pittsburgh. Images from the multiyear endeavor were published in Photography Annual 1959 and included in the eventual book Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City, in 1964.[2] Over the course of his career Smith won three Guggenheim Fellowships—a rare, impressive achievement—in 1956, 1957, and 1968. Throughout the later part of his career, he continued to produce important photo sequences, including his pictures of the Atoms for Peace Conference in Geneva and of the aftereffects of chemical poisoning on children in Hitachi, Japan.

Edwards viewed Smith as one of the heirs to an American realist tradition of photography that began with artists like Lewis Hine and Walker Evans. The Art Institute of Chicago acquired selections of Smith’s work in 1960, 1963, and 1965. Particularly enthused about the 1960 acquisitions, Edwards composed a thank-you letter to the artist, making special mention of The Spinner:

Thank you always for having lived to be one of the great ones and with all the obstacles that exist for a human being in our world, to have done these great things which put all the modern and scientific endeavor to shame. . . . now that I have the Spanish print here on the bookcase in the print study room, I want you to know it will be a little easier to get through some future bad times. What an honor to have this in the room with one! I shall return to it again and again as I write you. [3]

Despite this apparent enthusiasm, Edwards never mounted an exhibition of Smith’s photographs. The acquisitions, however—which include not only The Spinner but also signature work from Pittsburgh, his World War II period, and essays on Welsh miners as well as on Albert Schweitzer—attest to Edwards’s goal to have a comprehensive representation of an artist who had proven his place in the history of photography.

[1] W. Eugene Smith, “Country Doctor,” Life 25, 12 (Sept. 20, 1948), pp. 115–126 Smith, “Life without Germs,” Life 27, 13 (Sept. 26, 1949), pp. 107–13 Smith, “Spanish Village,” Life 30, 15 (Apr. 9, 1951), pp. 120–29.

[2] Stefan Lorant, Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City (Doubleday, 1964).

[3] Edwards to W. Eugene Smith, June 22, 1960, W. Eugene Smith Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

Chronicled the Horrors of War

Smith visited Japan three times. His first visit was during World War II. From 1942 to 1944 Smith was a war correspondent in the Pacific theater for Popular Photography and other publications. In 1944, he returned to Life as a correspondent and photographer. Idealistic and emotional, Smith went to cover the battles of World War II filled with patriotism. He was so horrified by what he saw that he gave up determining who was right or wrong and dedicated himself to showing the horror and suffering he saw.

In 1944, from Saipan, an island in the western Pacific Ocean, Smith said in W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American Photographer, "… each time I pressed the shutter release it was a shouted condemnation hurled with the hope that the pictures might survive through the years, with the hope that they might echo through the minds of men in the future-causing them caution and remembrance and realization." Later, he said, "I would that my photographs might be, not the coverage of a news event, but an indictment of war-the brutal corrupting viciousness of its doing to the minds and bodies of men and that my photographs might be a powerful emotional catalyst to the reasoning which would help this vile and criminal stupidity from beginning again."

Smith was assigned to the U.S. aircraft carrier Bunker Hill in 1944 and photographed bombing raids on Tokyo, the invasion of Iwo Jima, and the battle of Okinawa. His dramatic photo essays produced a collection of timeless, evocative images, including that of a tiny, fly covered, half-dead baby held up by a soldier after being rescued from a cave in Saipan a wounded soldier, hideously bandaged, stretched out in Leyte Cathedral and a decaying Japanese body on an Iwo Jima beach. Smith's photographic record of the Pacific theater of World War II is considered among the grimmest and most powerful visual indictments of war. On a ridge along the coast of Okinawa in 1945, Smith was hit by a shell fragment that ripped through his left hand, his face, and his mouth. He was unable to work for two years.

World War II: A Photographer at the Battle of Saipan

A contact sheet with scenes from the Battle of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection

Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk

When U.S. forces came to Saipan on June 15, 1944, the island’s strategic significance was clear: at just about 1,500 miles from Tokyo, it could serve as a staging ground for a full-on American attack on Japan. As LIFE pointed out in its coverage of the battle, American warships in the Pacific had to return to Hawaii—nearly 4,000 miles away—each time they needed supplies. A victory in Saipan would mean those long trips would no longer be necessary.

The problem with Saipan, for American forces, was not that victory there seemed doubtful. The problem was that it would come at a high cost. The terrain offered Japanese forces the advantage of numerous hiding places, and the ongoing fighting—the battle lasted nearly a month, by most counts, though some holdouts continued to fight much longer—concluded in suicide attacks by Japanese forces, as well as mass suicides among the civilian population.

Photographer W. Eugene Smith, sent by LIFE to capture the battle, described what he saw in a note that accompanied his photos as “some of the worst terrain that Yanks have ever been called upon to dislodge an enemy from.” Those notes were adapted into captions but not published in the magazine. They have been maintained in the decades since in the LIFE archives.

One of the most famous photographs Smith took on this assignment was an image of American troops rescuing a baby who had been found in a cave full of dead bodies. As Smith described the discovery in his notes, it came amidst a two-day mission during which troops searched for a cave in which scores of people were rumored to be hiding. Hours spent scouring the region produced only cave after cave of dead bodies. “The stench was vile and the flies and maggots were there by the millions,” Smith noted. “The heat was intense.”

The first living person the Americans found was the baby, “a ‘living-dead’ tiny infant” as Smith put it.

The baby had somehow become stuck, face-down on the ground, with its head behind a rock. Because the ground and the rock were not smooth, however, enough air circulated for the baby to be able to breathe. The search troops heard the baby crying, writhing on the ground struggling to free himself. “It took 5 minutes of careful removal of the dirt to free the head. [The baby] was passed down from hand-to-hand until it reached ground level,” Smith wrote. “Then it was rushed to a hospital by Jeep and we continued our search. No adults who were alive had been found.”

It was the following day that the long-sought cave was located. The American forces used smoke to flush out 122 civilians. The small number of soldiers who remained in the cave were said to have killed themselves rather than surrender.

As for the civilians, they were given water and medical attention, Smith reported. The scene, coming as it did after a grisly run of days, clearly left him with a feeling of hope that was rare in that time. “The soldiers who had lost so many comrades due to the same caves now showered them (especially the kids) with candy or anything else they had,” he wrote. “It was a magnificent example of fair play and lack of a blinding hatred such as can overcome decency and reason. This was real Americanism.”

Marines followed tanks against the last Japanese defenders with machine gunners providing cover. Three men alongside the photographer were hit just before he took the picture.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A U.S. Marine rested behind a cart on a rubble-strewn street during the battle to take Saipan from occupying Japanese forces.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Battle of Saipan, 1944.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A medic tended to a wounded soldier during a fierce battle to take Saipan from occupying Japanese forces.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The one living person among the hundreds of corpses in one cave was this fly-covered baby who almost smothered before soldiers found him and rushed him to hospital.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A contact sheet with scenes from the Battle of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection

Some civilians found safety from bombs and shells in the island’s many caves.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Dust from a nearby explosion caused this mother and son to scamper from a cave. Many believed Japanese propaganda which told them that they would be killed if captured.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

An exhausted Marianas Island father with a wounded child after his capture by (or surrender to) Americans during battle between U.S. and Japanese forces for control of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Native civilians fled ruins of a village during the fighting between Japanese and American forces for control of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Contact sheet with scenes from Battle of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection

An American soldier pointed a rifle into a bunker during fighting in the final days of the invasion.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Weary Marines filled canteens with water while the fighting raged on during the battle to wrest control of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

U.S. Marines tended to wounded comrades while the fighting raged on during the battle to take Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

U.S. Marines tended to wounded comrades while the fighting raged on during the battle to take Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The Battle of Saipan, 1944.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

As a jeep carried away a wounded American solider for treatment, a bulldozer scooped a grave.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

About W. Eugene Smith

The war in the South Pacific, a country doctor in Colorado, victims of industrial pollution in a Japanese village — all of these were captured in unforgettable photographs by the legendary W. Eugene Smith. No matter where, what, or whom he was shooting, Smith drove himself relentlessly to create evocative portraits that revealed the essence of his subjects in a way that touched the emotions and conscience of viewers. The works of this brilliant and complicated man remain a plea for the causes of social justice and a testament to the art of photography.

Born in Wichita, Kansas in 1918, Smith learned about photography from his mother, Nettie. By the age of thirteen he was committed to the craft, and by twenty-one he had been published in dozens of magazines. A breakthrough for Smith came during World War II, when he received an assignment to cover the war in the Pacific. In the spirit that characterized his lifelong approach toward his work, Smith threw himself into the action. He photographed on land, in the sea, and in the air, hoping to get to the center of the experience of war, and, in his words, “sink into the heart of the picture.”

As he observed and photographed the Japanese victims of the war, Smith’s conscience was stirred. It was then he began to develop in his work the theme of social responsibility. He sought to touch the viewers’ emotions and inspire them to work for social justice. As Smith explains, “I wanted my pictures to carry some message against the greed, the stupidity and the intolerances that cause these wars.” Smith’s wartime work was cut short when he was wounded, and he returned to his wife and children in upstate New York. When he was ready to work again, he felt he “needed to make a photograph that was the opposite of war.” The photograph, “The Walk to Paradise Garden,” was of his son and daughter stepping through the woods into a clearing. It proved to be one of Smith’s most enduring and best-loved photographs.

After the war, Smith undertook a series of photo-essays for LIFE magazine. Smith would spend weeks immersing himself in the lives of his subjects. This approach, very different from the usual practices of photojournalism, reflected Smith’s desire to reveal the true essence of his subjects. For “Nurse Midwife,” the story of Maude Callen, a black woman working in an impoverished community in the rural South, Smith wanted his essay to “make a very strong point about racism, by simply showing a remarkable woman doing a remarkable job in an impossible situation.” Smith’s method of getting close to his subjects and photographing them from a more intimate perspective proved successful. There was a tremendous response from both his editors at LIFE magazine and the public at large.

Smith, however, still felt a strong need to separate from the strictures of the magazine industry and work as an independent artist. In 1956, Smith left LIFE magazine and began work on an ambitious study of life in Pittsburgh. When asked to provide photographs for a book on Pittsburgh, he envisioned the project in epic proportions, planning a broad, multi-themed approach that would show the city as a living entity. He threw himself obsessively into the work, making more than ten thousand photographs, of which only fifty were used. The Pittsburgh project drained him physically and financially, and he was never able to publish the project in a form that achieved his vision. The experience, while difficult, represented a breakthrough for him as his biographer, Jim Hughes, points out, it “allowed him to continue viewing himself in terms of art rather than journalism.”

Smith fully embraced the artistic life in the late fifties, leaving his family and moving to a loft in New York City to devote himself to his work. For the next decade, Smith spent most of his time in his loft, taking pictures from his window of the life in the streets, and photographing the artists and musicians who shared his lifestyle. This period culminated in an acclaimed retrospective of Smith’s work, titled “Let Truth Be the Prejudice”, at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1970. Soon after, Smith began work on what would be his final project. Working with his second wife, Smith spent several years in Japan collaborating on a book about victims of industrial pollution in the fishing village of Minimata.

When W. Eugene Smith died in Tucson, Arizona in 1978, he left behind a legacy of some of the most powerful photographs in the history of journalism. His personal approach to integrating his life into the lives of his subjects revolutionized the somewhat new form of photojournalism known as the photo essay. His body of work remains one of the primary bridges between photojournalists and fine art photographers. In the end W. Eugene Smith’s greatest gift was his life long insistence that journalistic photography always search for the depth and humanity of its subjects.

Landmark Photo Essay,


In December 1951, LIFE published one of the most extraordinary photo essays ever to appear in the magazine. Across a dozen pages, and featuring more than 20 of the great W. Eugene Smith’ pictures, the story of a tireless South Carolina nurse and midwife named Maude Callen opened a window on a world that, surely, countless LIFE readers had never seen — and, perhaps, had never even imagined. Working in the rural South in the 1950s, in “an area of some 400 square miles veined with muddy roads,” as LIFE put it, Callen served as “doctor, dietician, psychologist, bail-goer and friend” to thousands of poor (most of them desperately poor) patients — only two percent of whom were white.

Calling Maude Callen a heroic figure — especially today, when the word “hero” is thrown around like confetti — might strike some as problematic. She was, after all, not really risking her life in her daily and nightly rounds. But how else should we characterize a woman who saved so many others through her work, and who firmly, compassionately delivered into the world so many children who, without her intervention, might well have died at or shortly after birth? What else do we call someone who dedicated seemingly every waking moment to helping others — in a time and place where pain and want were the rule, rather than the exception?

The article in LIFE, titled simply “Nurse Midwife,” that chronicled Callen’s work and her unique role in her community is a companion piece, of sorts, to Smith’s landmark 1948 essay, “Country Doctor.” Spending time with the two essays, one gets the sense that Maude Callen and Dr. Ernest Ceriani of Kremmling, Colorado — while physically separated by thousands of miles, as well as by the even broader, thornier barrier of race -— would not only understand one another, on an elemental level, but that each would recognize something utterly familiar in the other. Their lives and the landscapes they navigated might have been as different, in critical ways, as one can possibly imagine but in the essentials, they were kindred spirits. They were healers.

Here, on the heels of the 33rd annual W. Eugene Smith Grant ceremonies in New York, LIFE.com presents “Nurse Midwife” in its entirety, as well as images that Smith shot for the story but that were never published in LIFE.

The story in LIFE began this way, setting the stage for what one reader called, echoing the numerous awe-struck letters to the editor published in a later issue, “one of the greatest pieces of photojournalism I have seen in years”:

Some weeks ago in the South Carolina village of Pineville, in Berkeley County on the edge of Hell Hole Swamp, the time arrived for Alice Cooper to have a baby and she sent fr the midwife. At first it seemed that everything was all right, but soon the midwife noticed signs of trouble. Hastily she sent for a woman name Maude Callen to come and take over.

After Maude Callen arrived at 6 p.m., Alie Cooper’s labor grew more severe. It lasted through the night until dawn. But at the end she was safely delivered of a healthy son. The new midwife had succeeded in a situation where the fast-disappearing “granny” midwife of the South, armed with superstition and a pair of rusty scissors, might have killed both mother and child.

Maude Callen is a member of a unique group, the nurse midwife. Although there are perhaps 20,000 common midwives practicing, trained nurse midwives are rare. There are only nine in South Carolina, 300 in the nation. Their education includes the full course required of all registered nurses, training in public heath and at least six months’ classes in obstetrics.

Maude Callen has delivered countless babies in her career, but obstetrics is only part of her work… To those who think that a middle-aged Negro [sic] without a medical degree has no business meddling in affairs such as these, Dr. William Fishburne, director of the Berkeley County health department, has a ready answer. When he was asked whether he thought Maude Callen could be spared to do some teaching for the state board of health, he replied, “If you have to take her, I can only ask you to join me in prayer for the people left here.”

For W. Eugene Smith, work mattered. Throughout his legendary career, he sought out and chronicled the lives and the labor of people who knew their craft. Whether he was photographing a world figure like Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa or anonymous Welsh coal miners a doctor in the Rockies or a midwife in South Carolina Smith saw something noble in hard work, and something profoundly admirable in men and women who cared enough to do their work well.

But one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who ever appeared in LIFE’s pages whose humble and necessary work merited more admiration than that of the unforgettable, unbreakable nurse midwife of Smith’s 1951 photo essay. After the piece was published, LIFE subscribers from all over the country sent donations, large and small, to help Mrs. Callen in what one reader called “her magnificent endeavor.” Thousands of dollars poured in — sometimes in pennies and nickels, sometimes more — until, as LIFE later reported, she was overwhelmed by the response.

“Halfway through a recent day’s mail, [Mrs. Callen] said to her husband: ‘I’m too tired and happy to read more tonight. I just want to sit here and be thankful.’”

Eventually, more than $20,000 in donations helped to build a clinic in Pineville, where Mrs. Callen worked until her retirement in 1971.

In later years, Maude Callen was still (rightfully) being celebrated for her life’s work. She was honored with the Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award in 1984 for six decades of service to her community, and in 1989 the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) awarded her an honorary degree, while the MUSC College of Nursing created a scholarship in her name.

Maude Callen died in 1990 at the age of 91 in Pineville, South Carolina, where she had lived, and served, for seven decades.

Albert Schweitzer in Lambaréné

The recipient of 1952 Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 was German doctor Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), who was also a theologian, musician and philosopher. Although the Peace Prize was given for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life”, it was also given for the founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, now in Gabon, French Equatorial Africa.

The next year, journalists and photographers flocked to Lambaréné. W. Eugene Smith–the father of the photoessay–was among them. In the photoessay “A Man of Mercy” later published in LIFE, he documented Dr. Schweitzer, his hospice, and his humanitarian work in French Equatorial Africa. A perfectionist, and darkroom master, Smith spent up to five days developing and manipulating Schweitzer photographs.

Smith’s work is one of the flattering ones 78-year old Schweitzer received. Other journalists (for instance, James Cameron) pointed out flaws in the practices and attitudes of Schweitzer and his staff. The hospital suffered from squalor, was without modern amenities and Schweitzer had little contact with the local people, although Cameron withheld the story for the great humanitarian’s sake. The American John Gunther was more blatant: he reported Schweitzer’s patronizing attitude towards Africans, the lack of skilled Africans, and Schweitzer’s dependence on European nurses after three decades.

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6. Don’t worry about the finances

Steelworker, Pittsburg, 1955. Copyright: Magnum Photos

When Smith was working on his Pittsburgh project, he faced many financial setbacks. He wasn’t making money at the time, he was borrowing money from his family, and constantly short on funds (he could barely afford film and paper to print on). However he didn’t let this set him back. Halsmann inquires about the issue of finances:

”Halsmann: “How can this be financed? Is there any way, here in America today, to pay a man back for this work?”

Smith: “How long did it take Joyce to do “Ulysses”? I could never be rested within myself without doing this.“

Halsmann: “But what if the photographer does not have the financial means?”

Smith: “I will advise them not to do it, and I will hope they do.“

Halsmann: “What if nobody sees it? Besides a few friends?”

Smith: “Answer this and you will see how artists have acted throughout the bloody ages. The goal is the work itself.”

Takeaway point:

This is quite possibly one of my favorite excerpts from Smith. He was a man who didn’t get a damn about the issues of finances, fame, or reputation. He was only interested in making great work– it was an end into itself. He didn’t even care if nobody ever saw the photos, he had a deep drive in himself to create this work.

We are all social beings–and we crave for attention and admiration from our peers and family. It is natural. However at the same time, this can be a slippery slope. Rather than doing work for the sake of it, we do it to please others.

When it comes to street photography, we can also get suckered into getting praise for our photos (rather than making great photos). How many “likes” or “favorites” is enough?

We should shoot in the streets as an end in itself. Meaning, we do it for the sake of it– to improve our own work for our own love, rather than trying to impress others.

An easy antidote to focus on your own work: take a hiatus from sharing your work on social media for a year. Trust me, it seems like a long time– but it passes pretty quickly and it will probably help your photography incredibly. I know it did for me.

About a year ago from the advice of Charlie Kirk I decided not to upload any of my new work for a year. Sure it was incredibly difficult (I have always been a sucker for getting lots of views, likes, and favorites) but it helped me focus on my own photography. It made me focus less on the admiration of others, and more on myself– to create great images for myself.

Nowadays I’m sharing more of my images that I have shot from 6 months-year ago, but I still try not to share too much of my work. I find once I get into the habit of regularly uploading work, once again– it causes me to get hooked on external recognition and validation, rather than my own validation (and that of close friends and colleagues).

Doomed to Pittsburgh: W. Eugene Smith in the City of Steel

“One should avoid picturing a land which can never be reached, and arousing hopes never to be fulfilled, for the indulgence only makes existence harder.”
– Haniel Long, Notes for a New Mythology

“Other than that, Icarus, how was the flight?”
– W. Eugene Smith

Eugene Smith arrived in Pittsburgh in March 1955, a man hellbent on salvation. He had recently resigned as a staff photographer at Life, protesting what he considered the magazine’s botched layout of his photo essay documenting Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer. Smith was 36 years old and one of America’s preeminent photojournalists. His work in the Pacific theater during World War II — along with subsequent essays chronicling a village in Franco’s Spain, a country doctor in Colorado, and an African American nurse-midwife in rural South Carolina — were landmarks in contemporary photography. His integrity and immaculate craftsmanship had earned respect tinged with wariness. Editors knew he could be as edgy as a junkyard dog.

Now he was adrift. In debt, drinking steadily, battered by a diet of Benzedrine and downers, Smith hit Pittsburgh desperate to salvage whatever remained of his career. His wife, Carmen, was back home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, caring for their four children and supporting (often supported by) the family’s live-in housekeeper. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Smith’s mistress, Margery Lewis, had recently given unwelcome and illicit birth to the couple’s son. It was the proverbial dark time made darker by the death of Smith’s mother, Nettie, in February. A whirlwind of grief, vengeance, despair, and a kind of ravening idealism drove him into the City of Steel.

That’s the myth anyway. The truth is that money more likely brought him there. In February 1955, Smith received a note from Stefan Lorant — the former editor of Germany’s Münchner Illustrierte Zeitung and Britain’s Picture Post — inviting him to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming book celebrating Pittsburgh’s bicentennial. The project was under the imprimatur of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a civic booster organization founded by Richard King Mellon, heir to America’s greatest banking fortune. Smith and Lorant arranged a breakfast meeting in Manhattan on March 10, during which Lorant laid out the basics of what was supposed to be a brief but lucrative assignment: two to three weeks shooting slice-of-life scenes of modern Pittsburgh, following a loose script Lorant had devised, with a $500 advance on a total payment of $1,200 (approximately $10,500 in 2014 dollars). Smith asked Magnum, the prestigious photo agency he had just joined, to hash out a contract. By the end of the month, he was living fulltime in Pittsburgh.

“Gene was not the first photographer I talked to,” Lorant later told Jim Hughes, Smith’s biographer. “The first was Elliott Erwitt Gene was the second.” As fate would have it, hiring Smith was a decision both irrefutable and tragic.

Pittsburgh in 1955 was the archetypal Rust Belt city, which is to say, the archetypal American city. The 1950 census recorded more than 676,000 residents it was the twelfth largest city in the country, behind San Francisco and ahead of Milwaukee. Democratic kingmaker David L. Lawrence had been mayor for six years and was coasting to the governor’s mansion. Steel defined the place and its psyche, although sub-industries such as aluminum, glass, petroleum, and shipbuilding had their own strongholds. Pittsburgh’s most lauded names — Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, Westinghouse, and Heinz — were synonymous with America’s economic invincibility. Unlike other industrial hubs, however, Pittsburgh described itself as undergoing a “rebirth,” phasing out its smokestacks for sleek glass towers and its besmirched slums for model urban neighborhoods. It was a city in transition, the brochures said, and Smith was tasked with capturing the bright rush towards modernity.

“Gene arrived in a big station wagon,” Lorant told Jim Hughes. “When he unpacked it, one piece of luggage after another, I said to myself, ‘This fellow comes for two weeks?’ He brought a Gramophone, records, it seemed like everything in the world.”

That should have been the first tip-off that what Smith envisioned was more ambitious than a traditional photo essay. Settling into his rented quarters on Grandview Avenue atop Mount Washington, he pored over Pittsburgh history books and maps, blaring Bartok quartets late into the night as he grappled with this smoke-haunted place carved from the commotion of kindred rivers. During the day, he crisscrossed Pittsburgh in his green station wagon and paced neighborhoods on foot he watched the city the way you watch an acid dream derange your senses. For the first month he barely touched his cameras.

“The project goes slowly and is yet not well. Although there are slight indications that Lorant and I are with differences in directions and intent, so far the relationship has been pleasant. It is going to take at least four more weeks to finish here, damn it,” Smith wrote to John Morris, his agent at Magnum, on April 20. The “slight indications” of his creative differences with Lorant would soon become a total impasse.

Lorant had handed Smith a loose shooting script with 25 categories including “Steel industry,” “Nationalities and their clubs,” “Libraries,” “Life on the river,” “Life in parks,” and “Department stores.” Although Smith’s final photographs illustrate each of these, they do so in the most allusive and multifarious way possible. Even before he arrived in Pittsburgh, Smith was thinking about his work on an operatic scale: “Let it be clear that from that first breakfast I had an essay — for itself, and as a tool against Life — as my driving ends, regardless of my conscientious respect for my obligations to the needs of Lorant,” he wrote John Morris in 1956. From the beginning, Smith understood his Pittsburgh assignment as a way to redeem himself spiritually and artistically, as well as an opportunity to make a definitive statement about photography’s grandeur.

His inspirations were more literary than visual: Rilke’s Duino Elegies, Joyce’s Ulysses, the novels of Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, the lyrical and hard-bitten plays of Sean O’Casey. In his 1956 application for a Guggenheim fellowship, Smith laid out his all-encompassing credo:

Pittsburgh, the city of. An attempt at photographic insight into the always transitory immediate of a city undergoing existence. Its physical characteristics (and physical portrait) through surface line and detailed feature — through an eloquence of vistas given thought, and by the details of many fragments. The long squat buildings of its industries, the blemish of its slums, and how at times both have given way to the cleanliness of cared for greenery in newly built parks close by newly constructed buildings. From the blighted even to how soft with sensual beauty the city can be — seen from high, looking along the buildings and up the river to the moon which has just become fully stated above the horizon. And a further attempt at photographic penetration deriving from study and awareness and participation, a result that would transmit a sense of the city’s character, even unto the spirit and the spiritual — and I would have the result derive from a sensible perspective.

Elsewhere in the same application, he described his approach as being both more omniscient and more panoramic than in any of his previous essays. “I will observe, with intimate photographic scrutiny, these individuals as I encounter them during participation in the daily life of the city…I will not, this time, (photographically) know any individual as a complete person. For the individual, in my present essay, is a part of the teaming into the teeming whole that is the city…”

Smith worked obsessively from his arrival in March until his departure in early August. Fran Erzen, a legal secretary who befriended him in Pittsburgh, remembered, “He used to go forty-eight hours without sleep. He would take Benzedrine, and there were times when I’d see him on a Wednesday and he’d say, ‘I haven’t slept since Sunday.’ Then he’d collapse.” The range of places and scenarios he captured attests to his promiscuous eye: Portraits of society luncheons mingle with shots of city slums stark silhouettes of smokestacks abut noirish tableaus of the city at night the quicksilver arabesques of trainyards mimic the sheen of suburban streets and the sinuousness of riverbeds. Pittsburgh’s evocative street names — Breed Street, Love Street, Dream Street, Pride Street, Climax Street, Strawberry Way — became omens, comprising dozens, if not hundreds, of photos. Smith “just went and fell in love with so many things,” Lorant later said. “When he went to the Pittsburgh Screw and Bolt Factory, I thought he’d take one picture. Well, he spent a whole week or more.”

On May 20, while Smith was shooting at the Mellon Institute in Oakland, somebody broke into his station wagon and stole five cameras, ten lenses, a box of film, and other miscellaneous equipment. Smith estimated nearly 500 pictures were lost. Over the next several days he scoured the city’s pawnshops and landfills. He posted notices in local papers. Eventually he recovered two of his stolen Leicas at a pawnshop in East Liberty for $40. Inside of one was a roll of partially exposed film that recorded the two men who’d robbed him police used the evidence to later arrest and convict them. Smith, meanwhile, was forced to a wrenching realization: “I must continue with this Pittsburgh project from nearly halfway back to the beginning.”

He continued working at a feverish pace. By the time he left Pittsburgh on August 7 he’d shot more than 11,000 images (two subsequent trips in 1956 and 1957 brought the total to more than 17,000). It was a colossal achievement but not without precedent. In the United States, Vivian Maier, a near contemporary of Smith, amassed more than 100,000 images from the streets of New York and Chicago. And at the same time Smith was beginning his Pittsburgh project, Robert Frank was embarking on the cross-country journey that would become The Americans, his seminal 1958 photobook. In Germany, three decades earlier, August Sander’s “People of the 20 th Century” was an encyclopedic index of the Weimar Republic that, in scale at least, offered a touchstone for Smith’s own grandiosity. Various other photographers including Lewis Hine, Eugène Atget, and Edward Weston likewise suggest affinities to Smith’s sociological and architectural excavations.

[blocktext align=”right”]Smith’s work in Pittsburgh was a deeply personal kind of mythmaking, fueled in part by amphetamines and megalomania and tarnished pride.[/blocktext]Ultimately, however, Smith’s work in Pittsburgh was a deeply personal kind of mythmaking, fueled in part by amphetamines and megalomania and tarnished pride. To describe it as cathartic is only half true, since it was just as equally masochistic. “One morning looking out of a window, I wondered what the hell I was doing in Pittsburgh,” Smith wrote, “Mine was no love affair with this city, and I felt no crusade for the Mellons to give me cause and desire.” Years later he would take a conflicted attitude towards the project, deeming it both a “debacle” and “the finest set of photographs I have ever produced.” That the undertaking was a self-described failure only legitimized Smith’s commitment it was impossible to end any genuine artistic inquiry into Pittsburgh, one could only exhaust it. And, exhausted, Smith retreated to New York where he labored over the prints for four more years.[1]

What was the Pittsburgh W. Eugene Smith encountered in 1955? It was, first, a city riven by contrasts: rich and poor, black and white, industrial and commercial, old and new, land and water, steel and grass — contrasts that found literal and expressive embodiment in Smith’s printmaking. It was, second, a beleaguered city, a city of molten steel and fire, train songs, rust weather and iron weather, ramparts of aluminum sky and clapboard houses hewn inelegantly out of slagheaps. A city of nature betrayed and nature besieged. The figures in Smith’s photos have the serenity of resignation. Even the children don’t so much play as pantomime stifled dramas of violence and strife. It is, third, a city out of sync nineteenth-century mills erupt with smoke and magma while a short distance away loom the endoskeletons of new skyscrapers. It is, fourth, a metaphoric city — the city reimagined as Dante’s inferno and a labyrinth of death. Scholar Alan Trachtenberg writes, “Lurking in the background was surely his [Smith’s] experience…of mechanized violence in World War II. With its blast furnaces menacing sky, air, and workers, its polluted air and begrimed landscape, Pittsburgh would have seemed the perfect place to investigate…American industrial power, its dark Satanic metal-making mills which forged the great war machines of 1917 and the 1940s.” It was, finally, a city that challenged the sleepwalk of Eisenhower’s America. In his depictions of poverty, labor, and segregation — as well as his thematic motifs of alienation and desecration — Smith delivered a cynical rebuke to Pittsburgh’s cheery propaganda. “Pittsburgh was proud of itself, for the strides it had made against pollution,” Smith recalled in 1977, “That’s the reason why I photographed it with all the smoke — because men’s miracles are seldom perfect, and they were calling the salvation of Pittsburgh ‘a miracle.’”

Miracle is an apt word, as the idea of salvation was uppermost in Smith’s mind and photographs. In one image, Saint John’s Greek Catholic Church stands in the foreground while behind it are the jutting smokestacks of the A.M. Byers pipe factory and the gray Monongahela River. A billboard advertising Black Label beer is adjacent to the church. The image distills Smith’s experience of Pittsburgh as a place suspended between faith, industry, and desire, and perhaps unable to reconcile that trinity. Another image, this one of Saint Michael’s Church with the Jones & Laughlin steel mill in the background, reiterates the theme, with the cathedral’s cross finial obscured by a scud of steel smoke. Elsewhere, Smith photographs the interior of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church from a bird’s-eye perspective, just as he does the interior of the Mellon National Bank, presenting both as places where people genuflect to the twin deities of God and money.

Money, or the lack of it, comprises another motif. Men loiter outside the International Union of Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, whose window bears a notice written in shoeshine: NO WORK UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. A coal worker stands next to a door papered with signs, one declaring simply WORK, while another declares WORK SAT-AND MONDAY, and yet another ARE YOU WORKING – THEN MAKE THE PLACE SAFE! Four men idle on a nighttime street placards around their necks identify them as strikers from Local 1272. Then there are portraits of Pittsburgh’s rough neighborhoods, ziggurats of shabby houses and rutted yards broken by railroad tracks that symbolize unattainable wealth. And nearly everything everywhere insinuates the black promise of steel.

[blocktext align=”right”]It’s impossible to mistake the Biblical undertones: Mankind fell and was doomed to Pittsburgh.[/blocktext]Some of Smith’s most dramatic images are of Pittsburgh’s reigning industry. One of his most iconic photos — and the one he chose to open every spread of his Pittsburgh portfolio — shows in close-up the head of a steelworker wearing goggles and a hardhat. Each goggle reflects a plume of flame, and the worker’s face is ambiguous. Is he reverent? Contemptuous? Hallucinating? When asked about the image later, Smith said, “I wanted to show that the worker was fairly well submerged beneath the weight of industry the anonymity of the worker’s goggles and factory behind him told the story. Still, I did not want the worker to be entirely lost as a human being.” Yet, Smith’s factory photos are more allegorical than documentary. Workers are almost always depicted with faces averted or shadowed, apparently transfixed by the inferno broiling around them. These are images of labor as primordial and hellish. It’s impossible to mistake the Biblical undertones: Mankind fell and was doomed to Pittsburgh.

It’s a fall that repeats itself in eternal, indiscriminate repetition. Far from being exempt, children seem the harbingers. In one image, two young African-American boys brandish a decapitated white doll, reflecting, if only subliminally, the segregation of the 50s and heralding the race riots of the 60s. In another image, a young boy leaves his paint-covered handprints across a white wall. The prints have an eerie quality, like a blood tattoo announcing plague. In yet another image, a young boy holds a toy knife at his side while someone off camera jabs a wooden stick at his chest. The boy looks with despair towards someone else off camera. In a fourth image, six children cluster around a sign denoting Freeland Street. The child in the middle has a cast on his right leg and slumps on crutches, while the girl and boy to his left look behind them towards the empty residential street. A trio of girls in the left foreground sits on the curb with bored dissociation. It’s a portrait of paralysis, both physical and emotional, rendered grimly ironic by the street name.

Irony — or cynicism, its surrogate — runs through Smith’s Pittsburgh project with the inexorability of train tracks. In a sense, the Pittsburgh that Smith documented was a Pittsburgh he created: a doppelganger city conjured from his own fantasies, prejudices, and obsessions.[2] Smith, a frustrated playwright, saw in Pittsburgh the raw potential for a theatrical magnum opus. “A comparison to the playwright probably comes closest to illustrating the way of my thinking in building a work,” he wrote. Indeed, many of his photos, particularly those of city streets at night, have the allure of empty soundstages. Smith described the people in his images as bit players enacting dramas of which he was just the observer, although clearly he saw himself as the beneficent director as well. Images taken backstage at Playhouse Theater draw a literal analogy between Smith-as-photographer and Smith-as-director.

If failure is the essence of Smith’s project, that’s because what he set out to capture never truly existed. His attempt to delineate Pittsburgh as a place separable and distinct from its human swarm was sabotaged from the start. What is a city except a consensus of human longing? “I remain — ashes within ashes,” Smith wrote to his uncle in 1958, perhaps unconsciously adopting the incendiary imagery of the city he’d failed. For Smith, Pittsburgh was one long desolate mirage, infinitely apprehensible but utterly elusive. Forever after, anyone viewing Pittsburgh through his eyes would see a city of paradoxes, ambivalent about its past and uncertain about its future, waiting to be reclaimed by nature. It’s a city doomed to its own eternal cycles of heaven and hell.

The mystery of Pittsburgh, finally, is not what we don’t see but what we do.

Author’s Note: Due to rampant copyright infringement, W. Eugene Smith’s estate prohibits online reproduction of his photography. Fees to license his photos are beyond the budget of many digital publications, including that of Belt. I have tried to link to photos throughout, but interested readers are encouraged to pick up a copy of Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project (W.W. Norton) or check out the archives below.

The author is indebted to Jim Hughes’ definitive 1989 biography, W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance – The Life and Work of an American Photographer, for much of the quotes and other source material herein.

[1] The antagonism between Smith and Lorant reached a head in April 1956 when the latter notified Magnum of his intention to sue both the agency and Smith for damages totaling $50,000. Smith still hadn’t delivered any prints to Lorant, despite having finished his work in Pittsburgh eight months before. The two men’s attorneys eventually brokered an agreement by which Smith would deliver prints within four weeks and receive the remaining $700 Lorant owed him. In addition, Smith lost $20,000 from Look after Lorant halted publication of a Pittsburgh portfolio, citing contractual conflicts. In 1957, Life offered Smith $10,000 to print a selection of the images, but the photographer’s notorious perfectionism made an acceptable layout impossible, so he cancelled the deal. Popular Photography’s Photography Annual 1959 published 88 images in a layout Smith approved, although later he would consider it a poor approximation of what he’d envisioned. Self-recrimination was a hallmark of Smith’s life.
[2] In a notebook kept while photographing Minamata in Japan in the early 1970s, Smith wrote: SUBJECTIVITY IS NOT A CRIME. A BLANK WALL IS THE ONLY ALTERNATIVE. The difference between his Pittsburgh project and pure documentary is the difference between poetry and a police report.

Jeremy Lybarger is managing editor of The Bold Italic and a journalist who has written for Mother Jones, Salon, Bookforum, The Advocate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. Born and raised in Ohio, he currently lives in San Francisco. Find him on Twitter @jeremylybarger.

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Quote of the Week by W Eugene Smith

“My camera, my intentions stopped no man from falling. Nor did they aid him after he had fallen. It could be said that photographs be damned for they bind no wounds. Yet, I reasoned, if my photographs could cause compassionate horror within the viewer, they might also prod the conscience of that viewer into taking action.” —W Eugene Smith (1918-1978)

W. Eugene Smith was an American photographer known for his role in developing the editorial photo essay. Smith’s photos evoke an acute sense of social awareness and empathy in viewers. Born in Wichita, Kansas, Smith was introduced to photography at a young age by his mother, Nettie. He honed his craft throughout his adolescence, gaining prominence at around the same time as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and George Rodger. As a wartime correspondent in the Pacific theater during the second world war, Smith aimed not only to depict current events, but also to expose the tragedies of wartime and stir the conscience of his viewers. After the war, Smith created a series of photo essays for LIFE Magazine, always taking time to immerse himself in the lives of his subjects. His emotional approach to photography was unique among photojournalists of the time. In 1956, Smith left LIFE Magazine, as he began to view himself as an artist more than a journalist. He dedicated the rest of his life to his art, creating an extensive collection of photo essays in locations from Pittsburgh to Minamata, Japan. Today, his works are on display in the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, among others.


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