“I will not this time (photographically) know any individual as a complete person. For the individual, in my present essay, is a part of the teaming into the teeming whole that is the city, singular, and –Pittsburgh, the City of, is my project and is the individual to be known.”
L to R: Polish Army War Veterans Home, W. Eugene Smith, 1956;
After W.E.S: Polish Army War Veterans Home, Matthew Liam Conboy, 2008;
Telephone Building, Matthew Liam Conboy, 2007
In 1955, W. Eugene Smith was commissioned to produce 100 photographs for Stefan Lorant’s book on Pittsburgh over three weeks. He ended up making 17,000 pictures during visits over two years and received a Guggenheim in support of his ambitious photo essay. Fifty years later, photographer Matthew Conboy rephotographs the images that Smith created, using digital tools to position both Smith’s and his own movements through the city. Conboy, along with rephotography practitioners such as Douglas Levere, who rephotographed Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York (1939) and Mark Klett and colleagues who rephotographed early survey images of the American West by Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, and others in 1977 and again in 1997, use rephotography as a means to both explore photography as a material practice and to comment on change in the built environment.
Matthew Conboy spoke to Leo Hsu about tracing W. Eugene Smith’s footsteps and documenting a city that continues to change.
What first drew you to rephotograph the W. Eugene Smith Pittsburgh project?
I’d always been drawn to Pittsburgh, I’d been coming since 2001 to the Mattress Factory [an installation art museum in Pittsburgh], driving up from Virginia maybe once a month, once every couple of months. It was just the character of the city that really engaged me. In 2001 the Carnegie Museum had Dream Street which was the Eugene Smith Pittsburgh Project exhibition. I came up here with a good friend and we brought a 4×5 camera with us to try to recreate some of the shots without actually realizing what rephotography was or any of the theoretical constructs behind it so we were more or less fairly unsuccessful in our attempts to recreate any images. But that thought kind of stayed in the back of my head.
All rephotography projects have in common this idea of establishing a distance between two points but some of them do it in a way to draw attention to sameness, some to changes, some to stillness…
I think with that very first attempt in 2001 the idea was to get that most accurate re-recording of Pittsburgh. But I’ve really changed my ideas about photography. What I see photography as is an object: there’s a print, there’s a physical record. What rephotography is to me now is everything outside of that frame. Rephotography is about the practice of photography, it’s about everything that Eugene Smith did, his editing choices, why he stood in one place… I’m not so much remaking his image, I’m rerecording his performance so it’s become this performative action on my part.
And it’s very much shaped by his purposefulness.
Yes. Fortunately I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with the Carnegie Museum and look at his images and also visit the Library of Congress where I was able to go and flip through all 700 and some of his contact sheets. And what I was able to definitively prove was that in a few cases, he had these very discrete images that were in fact very purposeful. He would turn around in a circle and get 3 or 4 shots from the exact same position. He wasn’t walking up and down the street taking photograph after photograph after photograph, he would just stand in one spot, and I think it was somewhat contemplative on his part. He would find this almost perfect position in the city and see what was around him.
Shriner’s Circus Parade, Sixth Street Bridge, W. Eugene Smith, 1956
Sixth Street Bridge, Matthew Liam Conboy, 2008
Can you speak about some of the changes in the cultural landscape between then and now and how they might be reflected in your rephotography?
Beginning in 1946, the city attempted to reimagine itself in a postindustrial vision. So the smoke control laws were enacted, 95 acres of the Lower Hill district were razed for the Civic Arena, the interstate was installed in the North Side that broke that area up into three major sections. Today we’ve got the new arena going that’s taken down more blocks. This is also occurring on the North Side with the new sporting venues, the science center and the casino. They all contribute to the landscape that we have but Smith was able to get in there in that first decade when Mellon Square Park was still being erected, and the tourist vantage points on Mt. Washington hadn’t been constructed yet. He was finding these views, he was seeing them for the first time. What I hope to do is conceptualize the urban landscape as a fluid medium upon which social, economic, political, and cultural forces interact.
Sometimes it feels like he wasn’t working for Stefan Lorant, he was working for the city. I’m showing the changes that Smith’s photography was beginning to predict, what would happen…. He shot 17,000 images, 700 contact sheets, made 5000 work prints. Smith was supposed to produce maybe fifty, less than a hundred images, he was supposed to spend three weeks in Pittsburgh, it was going to be a very commercial enterprise. The book ended up coming out maybe 6 or 7 years late. He didn’t come out here to produce a photo essay, or at least he wasn’t hired to, it might have been a voice in the back of his mind.
You’ve had a number of different installation strategies. You have one in which you have a series of diaphanous prints- how many in that? A hundred pairings of the original and rephotographed Polish Army Veterans image?
I showed it at the Brewhouse in Pittsburgh, 100 sets of images in a grid. Smith’s image was printed on inkjet photographic paper and my image was printed on transparency film so when seen from a distance it almost took on this Warholesque idea of repetition but when you got closer to the images you could tell that each one was subtly different. Both sets of prints were printed from 1% to 100% opacity and they were arranged so that Smith’s 100% image would be under my 1% image and vice versa, my 100% image was overlaid on Smith’s 1% image.
That was also paired with two videos that I produced from the same images, just using Photoshop and iMovie to create a moving transition, and those were played at two different speeds, One very gradual that took about five minutes to go through this progression and the other very fast that took about one minute with this kind of stroboscopic effect. I like this idea of the video just playing, going out into this very three dimensional city and introducing this fourth dimension of time and then flattening all of that.
Last year I applied for a grant to use the iPhone software to create an app so that you could go to a site, activate the app and it would show you the transitions as you hold the phone in front of you. You could in fact take your own rephotograph with your phone.
When I was discovering that fact of Smith turning around in place, it happened twice to me where I would take one rephotograph, pack up my equipment, start walking to try and find the next view, and realize that it had been where I was originally and I wouldn’t figure that out for 10 or 15 minutes of tweaking my equipment, trying to walk around in circles.
Smith’s son was here in 2001 when they had the exhibit at the Carnegie. I think he had seen most of the Pittsburgh images before. From what I gather, he didn’t have any desire to see them in the museum. But I’m told by a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer that what he wanted to do was have this photographer take him out to the sites so he could stand where his father stood. I think that’s pretty powerful, that idea of location and specificity and kind of recreating this image in the mind, taking it off the wall, taking away the objectness of it.
Breed Street, W. Eugene Smith, 1956
Breed Street, Matthew Liam Conboy, 2008
Tell me a little about your actual practice.
Once I identify an image there’s one of two things that happens- it’s either still very clear or identifiable – I know it’s the Sixth Street Bridge or there’s a caption I can find. The other thing that happens is it’s a building on a street that has maybe unique windows or vernacular brickwork. In that case that’s where Google Maps comes in handy. I take that avatar, the Google streetview person, and digitally walk down the street, looking on both sides. That’s how I identified the Polish Army War Veterans’ home, the image that was up at the Brew House, just walking down the street and looking for a very specific type of window and doorway and fortunately it was still preserved that way.
So you’ve found the spot, what do you do?
I’ll pack up my laptop, I’ve got my digital camera with me. I know that he only used so many types of lenses, 135mm, 35mm, 28mm- he was very particular about using these types of lenses- and a tripod. So I’ll set down my camera at the closest spot that I think it is, take a preliminary picture, look at it on the computer, and with Lightroom and Photoshop I can actually start the process of overlaying right then and there. If it doesn’t quite match up I’ll move a few steps here or there. From there, I start judging the depth of field, the focal length…
Although it feels like I’ve been working on this project for a while it still has a ways to go. What will finally help me push me over the last hurdles I’ve been facing is to go to his archives at the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona. I’ve seen enough of his images, I’ve seen all of his contact sheets, but to see his writings, his notes, those are probably the most important things. Not only would it help rephotography in the literal sense it would also help understand what sort of mindset he was in. as he was here. Why did he spend two years instead of three weeks? What are the reasons for that? That’s the final step and that will happen in the next year.