Ten or 12 years ago, my wife and I drove north through New York State for our summer vacation. When we got to Rochester, we visited the George Eastman House, the world's oldest museum of photography, and one of the best. The Eastman House will let you examine any of its holdings if you call in advance, so I asked to see the prints they held by W. Eugene Smith. I had recently read Jim Hughes's moving biography, "W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Substance," and both Smith's photographs and his personality were fresh in my mind.
At the Eastman House, we took an elevator to an underground viewing room where the Smith prints were brought to a table. I put on the white cotton gloves they provided and was allowed to actually handle the prints — the work of one of the greatest image-makers of the 20th century. Now 63 of Smith's pictures, including many of the most famous, are on display at Silverstein Photography in "W. Eugene Smith: The Art of History."
One of the prints I examined underground at the Eastman House was of a street sign in Pittsburgh. In his obsession to document Pittsburgh in a project that dragged on for years through the mid-1950s, Smith became fascinated with street names that were not just proper nouns, but common nouns as well. I held in my hand a close-up of a simple street sign that read "LOVE." Having the physical photograph that close, I sensed Smith's determination to somehow definitively capture the mighty industrial city of Pittsburgh in all its complexity on film. He took thousands and thousands of pictures, and spent days and days working around the clock in his darkroom with music blaring as he tried to produce perfect prints. Smith took many brilliant photographs in Pittsburgh, although he could never organize them into the totally illuminating sequence he longed for.
Silverstein Photography has up nine pictures from the Pittsburgh project. A picture of a street sign that reads "DREAM" has a steel mailbox on a post to its left and a Studebaker convertible in the background to its right. A Studebaker convertible is as rare an object as a unicorn and so, dreamlike. "Pittsburgh, Smoky City, Steel Plant" is a classic image of smoke, smog, and industrial might, tall smokestacks spewing pollution as the technology they represent is about to become obsolete. But the most affecting pictures are those of the faces of the rugged men who work in the steel plants, many of them phantasmagoric with the thick glasses and other protective gear they wear. In Smith's portraits, they are heroic and doomed.
W. Eugene Smith (1918-78) was first taught photographic technique by his strong-willed mother. He was a staff photographer for the Wichita Eagle while still in high school, the greatest photographer of World War II in the Pacific, the master of the photographic essay while at Life magazine at the height of its popularity, and a cultural hero in Japan, where his photographs of the genetic deformities of children born in the fishing village of Minamata resulted in criminal convictions of the industrialists charged with polluting the local waterways with mercury. His picture "The Walk to Paradise Garden" was the concluding image in "The Family of Man" exhibition. A driven man, a perfectionist, he developed and printed his own pictures when most Life photographers just gave their unprocessed film to the staff at the magazine's lab. Eventually he left Life over disputes about the editing of his work, and over the magazine's refusal to publish his pictures as dark as he had printed them.
Smith was always a risk taker, whether as a teenager taking pictures as he dangled from a bridge while schoolmates held his ankles, or popping up from a foxhole while under fire as a combat photographer in the Pacific, a practice that cost him part of his face and almost his life, when he inevitably got hit. A picture of him exhibited at the Keith de Lillis Gallery a few years ago showed him hanging outside a window from what appears to be about the 10th floor of the building on West 72nd Street where he had his studio. It is a casement window, his left foot is on the sill, he is holding the window frame with his left hand, and the rest of him is suspended in midair. His right hand holds up a camera. The expression on his face is one of open-mouthed anxiety, but you know he is not worried about his safety, only about the shot he is after.
There are 16 pictures at Silverstein from Smith's famous Life photo-essay "Spanish Village." They include such well-known images as the three men in the Guardia Civil, the six women mourners around the corpse of a desiccated old man, and the woman spinner at her timeless task. There are five pictures from "A Man of Mercy, Albert Schweitzer," a series that probably accounts for the German doctor-theologian-musician being Schroeder's hero in "Peanuts." There are seven pictures from World War II, including the near miraculous "Soldier with baby." "Nurse Midwife, Maude Callen" is represented by three pictures; when the essay ran in Life, readers where so moved they sent in enough money for the dedicated black nurse to build herself a clinic. There is more.
W. Eugene Smith was enormously talented, consumed with perfection, and reckless to the point of being self-destructive. With him, photojournalism became art.
Until August 1 (535 W. 24th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-627-3930).