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Smith exhibit captures Steel City



Published: Sun, November 11, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The images W. Eugene Smith captured are more cinematic than expected from a photojournalist. A young teen, illuminated by streetlights, strikes a pensive post as she leans on a parking meter. Tree limbs artfully frame a cityscape. Smoke spews from rows of steel mills, blurring the outline of a church steeple.

"Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Photographs" at the Pittsburgh Carnegie Museum of Art exhibits 195 photographs from a 1956 unfinished essay of Pittsburgh. The exhibit, which will run through Feb. 10, is named after a street that no longer exists. Perhaps, a more appropriate title should have been "Shattered Dreams." The photographer seemed to focus on the dismal side of Steel City life.

The black and white print photo essay depicts powerful images of a cross section of Pittsburgh's population. While recognized for his thought-provoking portrait work, Smith also captured industry, architecture and landscapes.

You won't see the post-war euphoria often portrayed by other photographers of the era. Even normally joyous events, including proms and weddings, concentrate on behind-the-scene dramas, not snapshots for a family album. Nearly a dozen images of children playing in the street or preparing for dance rehearsals illustrate isolation.

Local interpretation: The exhibit can be appreciated on different levels. First, many Valley residents may enjoy looking at different locales, portraits and architecture of post-war Pittsburgh. Photographers will marvel at Smith's techniques that blend art and science to capture a particular mood. Movie buffs will recognize the melancholy film noir style.

The photographs are family friendly; the subject matter is appropriate for all ages. The museum's education department set up educational stations with further information on specific photographs. At the end of the exhibit, visitors can create their own photo essays with materials provided by the museum.

Smith's work evokes the clich & eacute; of the tormented artist. The photographs as a whole seem to echo the contrasts in Smith's life at the time. According to Sam Stephenson, curator, Smith said his photographs were the most vital expression of his life's work, and yet he judged the project to be an utter failure.

"I think that I was at my peak as a photographer, say in 1958, or so. ... But it was the most miserable time of my life," Smith said in text that accompanied his work.

Smith had just resigned from a high-pay and profile job at Life Magazine in 1955. He had also worked as a photojournalist for the New York Times, Newsweek, Life Colliers and Harper's Bazaar. Although Smith enjoyed the status and paycheck from the photo magazine, he often argued with editors over control of his works.

He was commissioned by journalist and author Stefan Loran to produce 100 photos for a book entitled "Pittsburgh: Story of an American City." The plan was to spend three weeks. He stayed nearly one year compiling 17,000 photographs.

Curator Stephenson spent five years studying the works to exhibit what Smith called "the synthesis of the whole." The exhibit is organized in 10 sections. Stephenson modeled the exhibits based on Smith's own photo essay layouts.

In addition to daily docent tours, the museum offers workshops, lectures and films in conjunction with "Dream Street."

After Feb. 10, the exhibit moves to the International Center for Creative Photography in New York City and the University of Arizona.

Another artist: Like Smith, artist Diane Samuels uses her creative talents to capture life stories.

"Inscriptions" is a multimedia installation that resulted from the artist's encounter with Otmar Gotterbarm and Norma Perlmutter. It will run through Feb. 24.

The one room installation is puzzling at first. Visitors should take some time to read the gallery guide to help understand the installation of the Pittsburgh artist.

Samuels sets up two parallel works reflecting her experience with the memories of her two subjects. Perlmutter told Samuels the story of her journey in 1922 from Poland across Europe to America. Gotterbarm related a memory of finding an American airplane crashed in a German forest outside his home.

As you walk in the gallery, two desks are positioned in opposing corners. A video projects onto another wall displaying book pages slowly turning. Inlaid in the desks, two handmade books have transparent transcriptions of Gotterbarm's and Perlmutter's narratives.

Each desk also includes two small silver gelatin prints that show the subjects' forehead and minute handwritten narrative transcription. You have to use the magnifying glass to figure out the tiny image.

On the wall hangs a glass page containing 22,500 squares of glass. Each square is inscribed with a letter, representing part of the narrative. The pieces look like a huge Scrabble board with miniature transparent tiles.

The communication in Samuels' creative detail evolves slowly, like fitting together a complicated puzzle. Perhaps, like W. Eugene Smith, the artistic intent is to let ideas flow until the strongest message surfaces.




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