Eugene Smith’s quiet, surreal image “Dream Street” changed my ideas about what photography is. I looked at it and realized someone was trying to communicate an idea to me. The stark image, mainly made of dark negative space of trees and grass, has two straight lines rising perpendicularly from the bottom of the frame, a mailbox, and a street sign. Then, slightly out of focus in the background, is a car from another time period, sitting tilted in the frame. Smith’s placement of the word ‘Dream’ propels me to my shadow world of sleep and simultaneously into the corporeal world stating there may be hope. Either place my psyche goes to is then darkened by the askew car in the background. While this dream is not fully broken, it is damaged and in need of help. In this dream I am alone on this road, the car is of no use and there is the mailbox. Is this mailbox for me to send and receive messages? Is this my only contact with other humans?
In the corporeal world, this is a statement on our industrial cities. When I first discovered this image as a teenager in the mid-80s, I was living in a suburb of Detroit. This once powerful city was falling apart. Its car industry, like the car in the photograph, was askew, slowly being overtaken by trees and grass: falling apart. As I learned more about Smith’s work and found that this image was part of his Pittsburgh Project, I felt he was trying to tell me that what was happening to Detroit was happening to many other industrial cities. While I do find this image melancholy, it also has a simplistic peacefulness. It has hung on my wall at various living spaces and I often stare at it as one might meditate on a Japanese rock garden.
W. Eugene Smith, Dream Street, 1955. Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith