Eugene Smith, that tortured soul, was one of America’s great photographers, and his work continues to resonate with anyone who loves the medium. Far more than a photojournalist and yet dedicated to creating work that still sits comfortably in the documentary tradition, Smith’s pioneering of the photo essay in Life and his large scale, unfinished projects such as the jazz loft and Pittsburgh series remain deep reservoirs for research and appreciation. Sam Stephenson, who spent years living with Smith’s work in the preparation of books and exhibitions on those two projects, is now set to complete a much-anticipated biography of Smith.
Smith’s work also caught the eye of Matthew Conboy, photographer, artist, and now a doctoral candidate at Ohio University. Conboy’s response to Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project exhibition (curated by Stephenson) has been to rephotograph the city following the master’s lead. Also inspired by Mark Klett’s Rephotographic Survey Project, Conboy sifted through thousands of Smith’s contact sheets at the Library of Congress and prints at Tucson’s Center for Creative Photography. “I organized my rephotographic project around several themes in the same way that Smith did: Tourism, Palimpsest, and Performativity,” Conboy told me. “Together, these three themes help to define what rephotography is and place it within a larger critical and multi-disciplinary framework.”
For the tourism theme, Conboy selected vantage points Smith had chosen, including one that spoke to Smith’s own status as a tourist and, perhaps not surprisingly, as a rephotographer. “I focused on photographs taken from Mt. Washington, the Schenley Bridge, and a photograph taken from Ridgewood Street,” he says. “While the first two images speak to Smith’s status as a tourist in this city, the last one was produced by Smith following directly in the footsteps of another photographer, Harold Corsini. In a sense, this was Smith’s foray into rephotography, yet it also reflects an aspect of tourist photography to create your own copy of a scene from a given vantage point as a form of contributing to a collective memory.” So that’s what all those photographs at the Leaning Tower of Pisa are about.
For the palimpsest theme, Conboy examined time’s overlays at the Polish Army War Veterans Home, a street sign embedded in the brickwork of a Breed Street House, and a view from the steps of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial that reveals dramatic changes in the urban landscape of Pittsburgh. For the performance section, Conboy positioned himself at two places Smith had been in the 1960s. “Smith would stand in one spot and turn 360 degrees in order to capture three or four distinct images that bear no relation to one another until his performance is reenacted,” Conboy said.
Some of the locations were easy for Conboy, who lives in Pittsburgh, to find. “At other times,” he says, “I relied heavily on the Street View feature on Google Maps. This allowed me to literally walk down the street in the general area where I thought Smith might have photographed without ever having to leave my house.” After identifying a specific site and arriving at the scene, he reviewed a printed or digital copy of the Smith photograph to get as accurate a location as possible.
But how to get that Smith-like look? Fortunately for Conboy, “Smith used a limited number of lenses, so the most difficult variable was achieving the correct depth-of-field in the image.” Conboy shot up to 20 exposures of each scene. He then worked in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to put his own images in conversation with Smith’s. “All of my edits were done with my rephotographs overlaid on top of scans of Smith’s prints or contact sheets,” he says. “Once my image was cropped and exposed correctly, I used Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro to emulate the black and white film that Smith used complete with digital ‘grain.’”
Conboy sees larger possibilities for his work. “Themes of temporality, palimpsest and tourism pervade my rephotography project and I know they lend themselves to new media, installation, and video art,” he says. “There are also a few more sites that I am searching for, and although these don’t fit directly into my dissertation, I still enjoy learning more about my craft through following in his footsteps.”
Matthew Conboy hopes to complete the dissertation next year. Meanwhile, he has undertaken another project based on the locations of the centers of US population through the decades. Thanks to Matthew for sharing his project and images with the Blue Notes blog.