Collection Spotlight: Jean Pearson by W. Eugene Smith


W. Eugene Smith, Jean Pearson (Theater Girl) series, 1949, gelatin silver print. Gift of Richard L. Sandor, 1986.1.158

I selected this W. Eugene Smith photograph from his 1949 Theatre Girl series. When I started to go through the collection online, I was drawn to the photographers, especially Smith. Smith was a Midwestern boy and a World War II photographer in Japan; coincidentally, my grandfather was, too.

This photo was shot for a Life magazine photo essay.  The subject, a young woman named Jean Pearson, was an aspiring actress in New York. A single photograph of her striking face was first published in Life. A couple of months later, a full-length, very charming photo essay on Pearson was featured in the magazine; this image comes from that series. It was difficult to select just one photograph from the many fine Theatre Girl prints in the Block’s collection. Pearson’s feisty expression really held my attention and drew me to this image.

W. Eugene Smith published several photo essays spanning a variety of themes, ranging from chemistry to a series on the life of a midwife in Spain. He also did photo projects on leprosy in Africa, mercury poisoning in Japan, and the life of a New York physician.  is topics were not always as charming as the actress series!  I majored in theatre in college, and found myself particularly drawn to these photographs. Given the Block’s proximity to Northwestern’s Theatre and Interpretation Center, I imagine many of our neighboring students might also find these works intriguing.

When I first discovered these photographs in the Block’s collection, I knew nothing about Jean Pearson. I enjoyed trying to put together pieces of her life.  Fortunately, it was easy to find a digitized copy of this issue of Life magazine online. This photo’s caption in Life tells us that Pearson is on the sidewalks of New York where she is a part of an experimental film. Apparently she never made it big as an actress, but I found documentation of a woman named Jean Pearson who played an angel suspended by a wire in a 1951 docudrama. I don’t know if it was the same actress or not, I really just started to scratch the surface, but more importantly, this photo came to represent the curiosity that’s so important at a university. There is so much out there to discover, and I love that the Block’s holdings might ignite this curiosity in countless students.

—Emily Forsgren, assistant to the director

You can make an appointment to see this work and others from the Block Museum’s permanent collection. Email or see Visit the Study Center for more information.

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