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'Dream Street'

Friday, November 30, 2001

By Bob Hoover Post-Gazette Book Editor

Taking pictures for Life magazine made W. Eugene Smith a superstar in the early 1950s.

 
 
'Brilliant Fever'

Where: Carnegie Museum of Art Theater, Oakland.

When: Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

Tickets: Free with museum admission.

Other details: As part of the "Dream Street" exhibition, the museum tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. will present a panel discussion, "Pittsburgh: Documenting An American City," dealing with what Smith encountered in 1955. On the panel are Edward Muller, director of the Urban Studies department at the University of Pittsburgh, and Alan Trachtenberg, professor of American Studies at Yale who has written extensively on Smith.

   
 

In TV's infancy, it seemed everybody read Life, the big glossy weekly magazine that teased with Broadway chorus girls on the cover and informed with Smith's stark black-and-white photo essays inside.

But, working for Life made the fiercely independent Smith stir-crazy, so he quit his high-paying job in 1955 and took the first free-lance gig that came along -- photographing the Pittsburgh Renaissance for a civic-boosting book.

While the decision proved to be an emotional and professional disaster, the photographs that ultimately emerged form one of the most powerful individual statements on a city by an artist.

The Carnegie Museum of Art's current exhibition of Smith's work, "Dream Street," gives a glimpse, but a powerful one, of his impossible vision. In conjunction with the display, Pittsburgh filmmaker Ken Love presents Smith's work and his words in "Brilliant Fever," a compelling and great-looking documentary.

The film premieres Sunday in the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater and is free with museum admission.

Years after Pittsburgh, Smith recorded his thoughts on photojournalism and Pittsburgh on tape and film, most of which are heard and seen here publicly for the first time.

Love combines them with the "Dream Street" photos to give us a genuine feel for this obsessed artist who found a terrible beauty in the smoke and flames of the old Smoky City.

Accompanying the images is an original score by Henry Shapiro which captures that "cool jazz" feel of the 1950s perfectly. Many Pittsburgh musicians recorded the music.

Love, who made the longer documentary on Teenie Harris, the Pittsburgh Courier photographer, rightly keeps the focus on the Smith photos, but the key to the film is the script by Sam Stephenson, who also was one of the curators of "Dream Street."

Narrated by Charlie Humphrey, head of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, the script is a primer on Smith's Pittsburgh episode as well as his troubled career.

"Brilliant Fever" is a superb complement to the Carnegie's ambitious "Dream Street" exhibition.

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