Thursday, May 3, 2007

W. Eugene Smith and Charles Pratt in the city

In 1955, W. Eugene Smith was commissioned to produce an essay on Pittsburg that was to be included in a book by Stefan Lorant commemorating the city’s bicentennial. The commission was to last three weeks and hopefully produce one hundred photographs. Smith wound up photographing for a year (most of 1955 and on two return trips in 56 and 57) and produced nearly seventeen thousand images, 200 of which he would later remark was his “greatest set” of photographs. Most of the images have never been seen and until his death, Smith kept the prospect of publishing the work in book form on his list of future projects.

About a year before Smith was to undertake his project, a former stage manager on Broadway turned photographer named Charles Pratt started a similiar ambitious project in New York. Without commission, Pratt set out to describe the edges of the city and for fifteen years would do so until a few years before his death. This unfinished body of work, like Smith’s, would not see its way into book form until well after the photographer’s death.

Although both projects started at the sound of different guns, they are similar in their approach to their subjects. Both seem to attempt an all encompassing view of their subjects with little regard for parameters. Smith started with a commission for 100 photographs and to attempt “the greatest of the impossible,” to create an epic portrait of the city and its populace at the peak of its industrial importance.

Pratt’s approach, with the added benefit of having no deadline, was equally open to tangents and as such, he explored and responded accordingly. Unlike Smith though, he was working in an area that was perceived to be disappearing. In an essay called The Edge of a City, Pratt writes:

“This is an attempt to characterize a place that is fast vanishing - the edge of the city. It is vanishing because American cities are growing out toward each other, their suburbs blending into one big suburb. It is predicted that New York, where I live, will someday be just one part of a long strip of megalopolis extending from Boston to Washington; in this urban-suburban complex there will be no outskirts…So I find myself drawn to edges with a sense of urgency, knowing that they may be gone tomorrow- not just extended but really, finally gone.”

Both photographers work describing two different aspects of city life that share common denominators. In both essays we observe people at work, rest and play and there is a similar tone to the images. From both bodies of work there is a celebration of life and certain air of heroism when we are shown images of workers. Both photographers achieve a quiet harmony in their images that is vastly different from another photographer making his way around the country, Robert Frank.

In 2001, 46 years after the original project was completed, W.W. Norton published the book Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburg Project. This book, which holds over 160 photographs, is not an attempt to re-create the essay Smith may have had in mind for publication. In 1959, Photography Annual published an 88 images essay called “Labyrinthian Walk” and this best represents an edit and sequencing that came directly from Smith. Smith did state that there were 200 images that represented “a synthesis of the whole” but failed to identify which images he was referring to. This book is an interpretation of that reference.

For work that is not only legendary to the photographer’s biography but of importance to his archive, this book does little to honor the work. The design and poor reproductions drain the life out of this body of work, leaving us with a boring, lackluster presentation. For all of the editor’s ravings of the beauty of Smith’s prints, they lay on the page in dusty duotone that lacks any richness and are arranged on the page in a jumble. (What ever you do, do not slip off the dust jacket to reveal the cheapness of the library style cover materials as it is depressing.)

I fail to understand why publishers will lay their hands on gold and then present tin. I know the common answer to this would be the bottom line dictates, but publishing a book today is relatively inexpensive. For an extra few thousand dollars one could make the book read and feel better in the hands of the buyers and present the work in the manner in which it deserves. This is a way of seducing and in turn, separating people from their money. I have many books that I have been pushed over the edge to buy because of the way they feel. I cannot imagine that with a project this interesting there couldn’t have been a way of finding the little extra cash that would have made the book’s production better.

The other answer might be that the publisher thinks the book has been well done. I can’t imagine, but in matters of taste all is possible.

Book Available Here

In 1998, Nazraeli Press published The Edge Of The City: Words and Photographs by Charles Pratt, New York 1954-1969. This book, unlike the disaster with the Smith book, does honor the work in a handsome and well produced edition. The photographer John Gossage was in on the design for this title and we should be happy for that. Gossage, who designs his own books, has excellent instinct for page layouts and sequencing. Working with another designer Gabriele Franziska Gotz, they don’t pollute the page with images. They allow the work its space to be enjoyed unobstructed. The images are also better printed in duotone than the Smith book. I wouldn’t say that the reproductions are great or even fine but the images read at least as healthy and not on their deathbed.

These two books sit nicely next to one another and can be compared and contrasted. Smith, the more famous of the two, shows us a of city through obsessive work habits and a sense of being everywhere at once. While Pratt engages us with a calm, peaceful stroll through a changing landscape.

Book Available Here