Throughout his career, W. Eugene Smith was known for being obsessive and difficult. Magazine editors considered him a megalomaniac and he viewed other photographers as inferior. He once wrote to an editor, “I know of no photographer working or thinking in photography as I do. I wonder why I continually apologise that others do not understand.”
In late 1954, he resigned as a staff photographer at LIFE after disagreements over the magazine’s layout of his photoessay from Africa, documenting Dr. Albert Schweitzer. In February, he joined Magnum Agency and received an engagement from Stefan Lorant — the former editor of Germany’s Münchner Illustrierte Zeitung and Britain’s Picture Post — regarding a forthcoming book on Pittsburgh’s bicentennial, bankrolled by a commission founded by Richard King Mellon, the heir to one of the country’s greatest banking fortunes. Lorant originally wanted Elliott Erwitt but Smith was available, and Lorant asked him a hundred pictures for the book.
Smith saw the project as an opportunity to produce his magnum opus – a substantial mega-essay which would not only capture the spirit of an entire city but also be produced with little editorial input from editors and show LIFE his true skills. Lorant handed him a loose shooting script with 25 categories such as “Steel industry,” “Nationalities and their clubs,” “Libraries,” “Life on the river,” “Life in parks,” and “Department stores,” but Smith would quickly exceed such remits.
Pittsburgh in 1955 was a city in transition. Its leading names — Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, Alcoa, Westinghouse, Heinz — drove American industrial might at the beginning of the century, but now it was phasing out its “old smokey city’ of factories and mills for skyscrapers and glass towers. A decade earlier, it had attempted to reimagine itself as a postindustrial metropolis: smoke control laws were enacted and 95 acres of the Lower Hill district were razed for the Civic Arena, an interstate came to the North Side. In the 1950 census, it had 676,000 residents — the twelfth largest in the country, just behind San Francisco and bigger than Houston, Dallas, New Orleans or Denver (in 2020, Pittsburgh had 300,000 residents, having dropped down to the nation’s 68th biggest city). Democratic kingmaker David L. Lawrence had been mayor for six years and was soon heading to the governor’s mansion.
Smith was expected to photograph the city for two or three weeks, but it took him half a year. Smith went around photographing everything: landscapes, street photography, the steel mills, the bars, the statues, the rivers, the street signs. He documented the city’s main steel industry as well as smaller ones such as aluminum, glass, petroleum, and shipbuilding. He juxtaposed churches and civil buildings in the foreground against the jutting smokestacks of the steel mills and factories and the gray Monongahela River in the background.
He received two consecutive Guggenheim fellowships (the first one coinciding with his friend Robert Frank’s fellowship for the work that became The Americans). Smith later said his inspiration for the work was less of the city and other photographers, but more of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, Faulkner’s novels, Tennessee Williams’s plays, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and late string quartets.
By the time he left Pittsburgh on August 7, Smith shot more than 11,000 images (he returned twice in 1956 and 1957 and eventually, his work totalled more than 17,000 images). The output would have been a little larger if somebody had not broken into his car and stole five cameras and around 500 pictures. Smith recovered some but not all from a pawn shop later. He produced 2,000 working prints and 600 final prints. (Magnum, realizing the monumental nature of the work sent a young photographer to help with the darkroom work).
Smith was a workaholic, sustained by whisky and amphetamines, and he handed to Lorant an essay with around 200 pictures. Lorant thought it was too long. He was fired from the commission and hit back by saying editors were often dishonest, overly-sentimental and vulgar in using his photos to serve a presupposed agenda. Other potential publishers were interested to publish his Pittsburgh work, including LIFE and Look magazines, which offered $20,000. Smith turned all of them down because none would grant him the editorial control. To LIFE, he presented a 32 page layout which was swiftly rejected it due to its length.
By 1957, Smith was burned out, depressed, and penniless. In late 1958, Smith found a magazine which would give him full editorial control: Popular Photography. He sold the photos for mere $1,900 but he struggled with the work. He wrote to a relative: “The seemingly eternal, certainly infernal Pittsburgh project—the sagging, losing effort to make the first of its publication forms so right in measure to the standards I had set for it … it is a failure.” Later, he wrote to his friend Ansel Adams: “My desire to make a personal apology to you (and thus to photography) for the final failure, the debacle of Pittsburgh as printed.”
On September 9, the essay, titled “Labyrinthian Walk” was published in Popular Photography’s Photography Annual 1959. Smith had eighty-eight images on thirty-six pages and a lot of text.
Additionally, the Annual was 8.5″ x 11″, compared to the larger 11″ x 14″ format at LIFE. The result was an essay where pictures were small and looked crammed.
Of the opening picture of the steelworker with flames reflected in his goggles, Smith said, “I needed a picture of man submerged underneath industry, but not lost.” This was one of the last pictures he made in Pittsburgh, sometime in 1957, with the knowledge that he needed a strong opening image.
The two pictures opposite were meant to offset the themes of the first picture: “The checker game we play with ourselves – ROTC headless-heads lost in the cherry blossoms – we go on heedlessly – training for peace in pursuit of love – this is a contradiction.”
In a 1970 interview, Smith said, “From the opening three pictures you could go in any directions, sets up vibrations between each other that allow you to think as deeply as you wanted from there.” Smith described the second page as an “amplification of humanity in this – hands touching – the theme of love from a new approach – man and his livelihood – Smoky city – moon in the city at night – dream of clearing smoke – a contradiction – stairways – more disclosure of the feeling of the city.”
The reception was mixed. Minor White, the famous photographer and editor, complained to John Morris at Magnum, Smith’s agency: “Gene doesn’t have proper training in layout.” Jacob Deschin in the New York Times called it a “personal triumph” for Smith and an “intensely personalized, deeply felt document.” He wrote, “Smith uses layout as an additional means of communicating his impressions of the city’s varied facets, its human and physical qualities … The approach is poetic, evoking the city’s character, the atmosphere of its everyday life, recalling the past and pointing up some of the bright signs of the future.” Deschin also acknowledged its limitations: “Some readers may object to the details of the layout, such as the use of small pictures, rather than fewer and larger.”
Smith was hurt by both the effort and the reception. He spent next seven years in a dilapidated loft on Sixth Avenue, photographing the jazz musicians that frequented the building as well as the view out of his window.