Jesse’s book review, 1959
Ok now this one is a bit different. No it is not a book. And no you more than likely can’t find this. But there is a point. I went back to the US for a visit last summer and after leaving Baltimore stayed with my mother in Nebraska to shoot what became an exhibition about Nebraska I had at Totem Pole gallery.
My mother is an altered book/collage artist and after seeing what Nuno Moriera does with his collage art I was curious and told her I would like to try. She gave me stack full of old material and in them were some old Photography Annual magazines. I was about to start cutting them up when I realized how good the photos were in addition to the Leica M3 ads.
And then I came across this issue and found that it featured the first ever publication of W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh project. I realized there is no way I should cut this but instead found plastic for it and put it in my luggage. So this write up will be a little about the magazine itself as I found some interesting points that correlate to amateur photography today and of course Smith’s Pittsburgh project.
Now unlike most US camera magazines today this is less about gear and more about the actual photos. Almost blasphemous to say this on a write up for Japan Camera Hunter, but I am quite minimal about gear. For me a camera is a tool and it is amazing how everything looks like a nail when your only tool is a hammer. This is of course personal philosophy; I wouldn’t argue this point to anyone as certain things work for certain people.
I do find it interesting that the editor in this mentions the same in saying, “Not only are established manufacturers imitating Detroit’s new model every year technique…but with that the scale certainly has been weighted heavily on the side of tools and techniques.” Really foretelling. He goes on to talk about how hard it is as a photographer to get work, which is similar to what is said today. We romantically think that as the golden age for photography and can’t fathom this being an issue but apparently it was.
He also mentioned that for the first time a photo book (that is a book of only photographs) hit the nation’s bestseller lists. The most interesting point he makes is his loathing for color photography. “Color photography continues to make strides perhaps because its short history has piled up fewer outstanding pictures.” Looking at the photo below, the woman’s nude body looks like a figure out of Matisse’s Dance. Just some small tidbits I wanted to share that I found interesting.
So W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh project! In case you don’t know what it was it was a small commission that begin in 1955. He was expected to photograph the city for two weeks and ending up spending a year taking over ten thousand photos then another two years trying to edit and print the material he had amassed. He was fired from the commission and took a stand against editors in protesting their dishonest and either overly-sentimental or vulgar use of photographers’ photos to serve a presupposed agenda.
The project is now viewed as one of the most extensive looks at the life of a city where I could only compare in another mediums to Zola’s series on the France under the Second Empire, Dziga Vertov in Man With A Movie Camera, or more recent what the TV show The Wire did for Baltimore in its tragic depiction of a city (sorry hometown bias, had to throw in the Baltimore Ravens pennant as well cause I really hate Pittsburgh; eat that Colin Barey).
Aside from Zola, Smith’s project feels the most complete. For Smith it was far more than a city, it was life on earth and really the reason why the project grew uncontrollably to such absurd proportions.
The project incorporates it all. Landscape shots, street shots, the steel mills, the bars, the statues, the rivers, street signs, virtually anything you can think of in a city. All of it is even daunting to list. I always heard about the project but never seen much past Google searches so when I turned page after page of just street signs I saw how absurdly complete this all was. If you remember back to my earlier review on the Jazz Loft project that came just after this, I point to his obsessive character in recording everything down to the sounds of a building.
I believe I also pointed out his use of drugs just to keep going which underlies that line of genius and insanity. In cinema Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the leader of the new German Cinema movement, is the only other person who comes to mind as he made 40 films, 2 TV series, 24 plays, etc in 15 years before dying off of caffeine, cocaine, and barbiturates in his 30s.
With that it would prove redundant to even examine photos or sets. Instead I will just say that Smith was just great. I mean people talk about authenticity and for him its rare because all though he was surely authentic it wasn’t because of his objectivity, which would usually be the case but instead his subjectivity that made him so special. You can feel the empathy in all of his photos especially the war ones that you don’t quite get with a Capa. His Life feature on a country doctor was enough to confirm this.
Perhaps Dream Street is the best book to buy on this project that is quite easy to obtain through Amazon. I feel that if I had of just done this on that book this would have proved redundant due to the amount of material already covered on it. I just thought it would be fun to write on the Pittsburg project in the context of its original publication in 1959. Hopefully you enjoyed it…and Colin Barey and the Pittsburgh Steelers suck.
I like this one. Hearing that photographers were bitching in exactly the same way 50 years ago is pretty comforting. Thanks for sharing it with us, Jesse.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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What an amazing write up. Thank you for publishing this stuff on your site, Bellamy. W. Eugene Smith was an absolute animal when it came to photography- his work is second to none, and it cost him so much to achieve. We often look at photos and don’t think of the back story of either the subject or the photographer- thank you for shedding some light on this.
By the way, Smith’s addictions and lifestyle also led him to constantly sell off his gear- it used to piss off his editors at LIFE. When he shot the Minimata stuff, he was actually using Minolta SRT’s- which proves you don’t always need a Leica (but it doesn’t hurt to have one, either).
This is one of the best things I have read in a long time. thanks again.
I enjoy a lot browsing old “Photography Annual” (for some strange reason you can get them preaty easily in some antique books stores in Barcelona).
I don’t have the 1959 issue (will try to find it after your review), but I got some other years issues, where I found little treasures like the Eugene Smith one you metion, such as some Robert Frank commercial work, Avedon’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe, earlier Bruce Davidson’s work, and not well known HCB photographs. Most of them are “minor”, compared to the better known works from these artists, but they teach you a lot about the creative process and shed light on their trajectories as photographers.
As an anecdote, in the 1961 issue there is a review of The Amricans, that you could buy then for just 7.5$, where it says: “The most controversial photographic book of this year was this collection of pictures of the U.S.A. taken by Robert Frank, while on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Accused by some of being a scathing attack on America, admired and defended by others for its uncompromising viewpoint, few would deny that its 83 photographs were the work of a photojournalist with a definite point of view and teh ability to effectively express it with his camera. “
I have this very book! I love the photos in it and I love the way printing was done back then. You can’t imitate that texture today, I don’t think.
Eugene Smith is one of my favourite photographers of all time. His work affects me more than HCB’s does.