Eugene Smith arrived in Pittsburgh in March 1955, a man hellbent on salvation. He had recently resigned as a staff photographer at Life, protesting what he considered the magazine’s botched layout of his photo essay documenting Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer. Smith was 36 years old and one of America’s preeminent photojournalists. His work in the Pacific theater during World War II—along with subsequent essays chronicling a village in Franco’s Spain, a country doctor in Colorado, and an African American nurse-midwife in rural South Carolina—were landmarks in contemporary photography. His integrity and immaculate craftsmanship had earned respect tinged with wariness. Editors knew he could be as edgy as a junkyard dog.
Now he was adrift. In debt, drinking steadily, battered by a diet of Benzedrine and downers, Smith hit Pittsburgh desperate to salvage whatever remained of his career. His wife, Carmen, was back home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, caring for their four children and supporting (often supported by) the family’s live-in housekeeper. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Smith’s mistress, Margery Lewis, had recently given unwelcome and illicit birth to the couple’s son. It was the proverbial dark time made darker by the death of Smith’s mother, Nettie, in February. A whirlwind of grief, vengeance, despair, and a kind of ravening idealism drove him into the City of Steel.