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Luminous Joy in the City of Steel

W. Eugene Smith captured the grit and beauty of industrial Pittsburgh

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Ed Kociszewski and Jeanne Sontheimer got married on June 18, 1955, in Pittsburgh. Ed, a World War II veteran, was a meatcutter at an A&P. Jeanne was an executive secretary at Sears. Thanks to Ed’s father, who fought in the Polish Army in World War I, the reception took place in the ballroom of a Polish veterans home.

During the celebration, Jeanne’s father approached the happy couple and said, "There’s someone outside who wants to take your picture, and he’d like you to look out the window and wave." The newlyweds grabbed the maid of honor—Jeanne’s sister, Sue—and leaned out the window. "I vaguely remember seeing some nondescript person with a camera,” Jeanne says today.

That was W. Eugene Smith, one of the nation’s most acclaimed photographers. He covered the war in the Pacific for, among others, Life magazine (he was badly wounded on Okinawa) and later produced photographs for scores of the magazine’s stories. Many of his images were unforgettable, such as his portraits of a black-bag-toting rural doctor on a house call and of a droopy-mustached Albert Schweitzer tending people with leprosy in Africa. But Smith, a troubled perfectionist increasingly at odds with the magazine’s handling of his work, quit the staff in 1954.

Free to pursue his expansive vision, he turned a three-week freelance assignment to photograph Pittsburgh into a monumental project that spanned three years. He envisioned a "gigantic and complex" photo-essay exploring themes such as humanity’s conflicted relationship with technology. SteelCity in the postwar years, with its "vistas of melancholy," as he put it, thrilled his eye. Heavy industry abutted natural beauty; smokestacks vied with church spires. He took some 17,000 pictures, and spent many amphetamine- and jazz-stoked nights developing prints in a ratty New York City loft.

Smith’s images are marked by tension and irony—a steelworker rendered anonymous by dark goggles, the sign for Love Street covered in grime—and would be considered masterful by most measures. But Smith was not satisfied. After publishing 88 of the pictures in Popular Photography in 1959, he wrote to Ansel Adams to "make a personal apology to you (and thus to photography) for the final failure, the debacle of Pittsburgh as printed." Smith went on to make important photographs, including his renowned 1972 portrait of a mother in Minamata, Japan, bathing a young daughter deformed by mercury poisoning. Smith died in 1978 at age 59.

Now his Pittsburgh photographs are part of an exhibition in New York City until June 16, 2002 and scheduled for Tucson in July and Durham, North Carolina, in 2003. The work exposed "the mores of America at mid-century and set new standards...of photographic journalism," writes Sam Stephenson, the show’s curator and editor of Dream Street, a 2001 book of the Pittsburgh photographs.

His shot of the Kociszewski wedding party is cheerful, but it, too, has an undertone; the celebrants’ glowing innocence contrasts with the building’s dinge and the sign’s reminder of war. Forty-seven years later, Sue Wilmot, née Sontheimer, works as an administrative assistant at a Pittsburgh hospital. Ed, retired from the butcher’s trade, and Jeanne, retired from Sears, remain married; they have three children and five grandchildren and live outside Pittsburgh. Smith called it "the man-breaking city," but to the Kociszewskis, it was home. "It’s a much nicer city than I grew up in," Jeanne says. "But I liked it then too."

Today, the ground floor of the onetime veterans facility where they wed is an upholstery shop. The room in which they posed for Smith is, fittingly, a photography studio.

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