“Fate, it not only reigns, it gores. Ah yes, that film that working the nights into long days I did develop, I did complete, and from exhaustion I did collapse. That film (the second half of it, about 500 pictures) all packed and boxed and ready for mailing, was stolen from my car yesterday.”
W. Eugene Smith in a letter to his brother Paul, May 1955.
On May 20, 1955, someone broke into LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith’s car while it was parked in downtown Pittsburgh. The thieves carried off 5 Leica cameras (a mixture of If, IIf and IIIfs), 10 lenses, and a box of exposed films he had shot for his now iconic documentary project about Pittsburgh.
Local newspapers and the Pittsburgh police subsequently circulated requests to the thieves to return the film, as it represented the sum total of a month of shooting by Smith. They were told they could keep the Leicas. Two of Smith’s Leica showed up in a local pawn shop, where Smith bought them back for $40. One of the cameras contained a roll of film that, once developed, showed the thieves taking pictures of each other. The pictures were used to eventually arrest the culprits, and the remainder of Smith’s equipment was found in their possession. Smith would use these 5 Leicas to produce his monumental Pittsburgh documentary project. His stolen film was never found, in spite of a search of the Pittsburgh city dump by sanitation workers using shovels and rakes. One can only imagine what was lost to documentary posterity.
While much celebrated in the 40’s and 50’s, Smith’s reputation declined in the 60’s and 70’s with the arrival of a new generation of photographers like Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Josef Koudelka. Smith died in Tucson, Arizona in 1978, emaciated and alone. He had $18 in the bank. He had gone out into the early morning streets to search for his lost cat. He fell, hit his head and died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 58.