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Capturing America's Image--the Glossy and the Dark

Photography* Two N.Y. exhibitions reveal how the camera and its artist can shape the look and feel of an era, a historic event or an urban vision.

April 15, 2002|ARIELLA BUDICK | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — A matched pair of photojournalism shows at the International Center of Photography chronicles the struggle between an explosive medium and one of its more celebrated practitioners.

"Rise of the Picture Press: Photographic Reportage in Illustrated Magazines, 1918-1939" documents the early years after the development of small hand-held cameras, high-speed roll film and the half-tone printing process that allowed publications to accompany stories with photographs rather than engravings.

The need for vivid and graphic dispatches from the front lines during World War I led to an explosion of news photography, and the exhibit traces the birth of publications from Germany's Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung to an American latecomer, Life magazine, which published its first issue in 1936.

For the next few decades, Life would shape the glossy look of an era, thanks to the eyes of photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, whose gritty, noir-ish composite portrait of mid-century Pittsburgh form the accompanying show, "Dream Street." Smith, who was born in 1918, was reared at Life, becoming one of the magazine's prodigies when he was in his 20s and satisfying the publication's demand for uplifting photo essays on stories of human dignity and moral righteousness.

Henry Luce, the magazine's publisher, described Life's ideal content as "big pictures, beautiful pictures, exciting pictures, pictures from all over the world, pictures of interesting people and lots of babies."

Smith complied: He followed a country doctor on his rounds, rendered homage to a black nurse-midwife in the impoverished South Carolina countryside and accompanied Albert Schweitzer on his medical missions to Africa.

Then something snapped. It's this juncture, when Smith quit one of the world's best jobs in 1954, that gives "Dream Street" its sad and compelling power. The Pittsburgh photographs were Smith's after-Life magnum opus, and with them he produced a darkly urban vision, less out of a magazine than out of film noir.

He documented a city devoted to the pursuit of prosperity but riven by poverty, engulfed in clouds of smoke from the steel mills.

Massive monuments of industry dwarf the lonely citizens, who live on desolate streets and in squat wooden houses. Smith shot in high contrast and heightened the dark tints to the point of creepiness. His favorite picture is a close-up of a steel worker's solemn face, his skin darkened by grime or shadow, a flaming furnace reflected in his goggles like a pair of infernal eyes.

The show's curator, Sam Stephenson of Duke University, reads this expressive photo--and the whole Pittsburgh project--as a self-portrait of an artist caught between success and despair. Smith was an alcoholic and a drug addict, with a wife, four children, a thriving career and a streak of self-destructive purity.

Stephenson sees the paradoxes of a city churning toward progress and leaving vast segments of its population in squalor as metaphors for Smith's state of mind.

Throughout his tenure at Life, which began in 1939, with a long interruption for World War II, Smith squabbled with his editors, accusing them of manipulating his images for crass purposes.

He was a professional in a popular business but never relinquished a sense of himself as an artist whose motives were pure.

"I have a cult of followers throughout the world who look up to me as the shining light and the protector of integrity and as the one who never compromises my beliefs before pressures of the commercial and outside world," he wrote to his mother in 1953. "Perhaps this ... is a reason I am unhappy because I am afraid I will let these people and the world down."

That grandiose fear led him to follow the freelance life and accept an assignment to illustrate a book commemorating Pittsburgh's bicentennial.

It was exactly the sort of celebratory civic project that a bold, gloomy visionary like Smith might have found unpalatable.

But he didn't; he saw it instead as an opportunity to show his former employers what a truly fine photographer was capable of if left unconstrained.

His task was to take 100 pictures in three weeks.

He wound up spending a year in Pittsburgh and producing 2,000 prints from 17,000 negatives.

After turning in his 100 photographs, Smith's attempt to make the whole project cohere consumed three more years, two Guggenheim fellowships, an advance from the Magnum photo agency and hundreds of gallons of developing chemicals.

Various publishers were interested, but none was willing to grant him the complete editorial autonomy he demanded.

Finally, Popular Photography magazine agreed to cede him control over layout and text in its 1959 Photography Annuals.

The result, he immediately concluded, was a complete and abject disaster.

Smith was defeated by the conventions of the photo essay, a well-established tradition at Life in which pictures and narrative were combined to deliver a straightforward story.

The sheer quantity of material he had, and his ambitions to capture an entire city swamped the genre.

He was not capable of making the necessary choices.

What he was after was not a series of punchy vignettes but a sprawling epic in the manner of his favorite music: Beethoven's late string quartets and the rhapsodic improvisations of John Coltrane.

There is something epochal about the conflicts between Smith and the forms he worked with.

The illustrated magazines whose birth we witness in "Rise of the Picture Press" were based on the notion that the world can be packaged in a series of neat visual tales and telling pictures.

Smith's embrace of a vaster, messier version of things foreshadows the 1960s, when magazines such as Life could no longer shoehorn the country's sprawling chaos into their tidy formats, especially when television was feeding rawer, more frenetic images to a public now ready to absorb them.

*

Ariella Budick is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune company.

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