Biography: Biography: "Humanity", the late Eugene
Smith liked to tell his students, "is worth more than a picture
of humanity that serves no purpose other than exploitation."
A fit epitaph, those words, for a premier master of photojournalism,
an area of the medium in which exploitation of one's subjects
is a line all too easily transgressed.
Yet, during much of his productive life, Smith clung passionately
to his chosen side of that line; it was a basic belief underlying
his work (both the successes and the arguable failures). Basic,
too, and problematic from time to time, was an equally passionate
belief in the integrity of his photographs, of the individual
statements in which form, tone, and humanity coalesced with such
grace and power.
Smith's early photographs, those of his apprenticeship years
in the late 1930s and early 1940s are mere footnotes, the traces
of his evolution into a mature artist (although characteristically
he included a roomful of these early efforts in his massive 1971
New York Jewish Museum retrospective). That maturity, both photographic
and, perhaps, moral, was molded in the cauldron of World War II.
Until suffering near-critical wounds on Okinawa in 1945, Smith
produced image after image in what he hoped might be "an
indictment of war."
Two years later, barely recovered from those wounds (physical
disaster, including a near blinding while photographing Minamata,
stalked Smith throughout his life, culminating in the fall from
which he died), fearing an inability to again hold a camera, Smith
created his most famous single image, "The Walk to Paradise
Garden." A sentimental, heavily romantic evocation of the
journey from paradise lost to paradise regained, it became the
most memorable feature of Steichen's Family of Man exhibit.
From 1947-1954, Smith worked with Life magazine and, in so doing,
changed our perceptions of the photo-essay. If some, such as "Country
Doctor", simper rather too much, others (i.e., "Spanish
Village" and "Nurse Midwife") are examples of how
the form might best be used. The 1951 essay, "Spanish Village",
is perhaps the most striking example of a photo-essay in which
the traditional subordination of pictures to words is essentially
reversed. Without Life's captions, Smith's pictures retain their
communicative power, without the pictures, the words die.
Smith's relationship with Life, tenuous at best, was severed
more than once. Two years later after the last major photo-essay,
Smith took advantage of a Guggenheim Fellowship (the first of
three) to further one of his most ambitious endeavors: a massive
photographic study of Pittsburgh, one of America's industrial
The results of those Pittsburgh years have been published only
in fits and starts. The big book that Smith envisioned, Pittsburgh:
A Labyrinthian Walk, never came to fruition. In the bowels of
the U.S. Library of Congress, however, may be found three thick
binders containing a complete record, in contact sheets, of Smith's
Pittsburgh labors. Their publication, if permissible, would be
of singular value.
Perhaps his most famous major project, Minamata, completed in
the early 70s, is a lineal descendent of the wartime photographs.
This, too, was an indictment, not of the abstraction of war, but
of the harsh reality of individuals and institutions, which foul
the environment and, in the process of profit maximization, wreak
unbelievable human suffering. Its value to the people of Minamata,
its importance in stimulating the environmental movement, are
among Smith's greatest legacies to the humanity from which he
drew his subjects.
There is a photographic legacy, as well. The exacting standards
he set for himself and the degree to which those standards were
time and again met, are both inspiration and challenge to his
Smith's prints are marked by their subtle tonal changes, brilliant
highlights (sometimes achieved with local application of bleaching
agents) and full, rich-toned blacks. His attention to lighting
is revealed most fully in the death bed scene from the Spanish
Village series. Relying upon strategically positioned candles
to augment the light, Smith created a tone poem about life and
death, a poem in which each human face speaks its stanza. From
the same series, Smith's portraits of three young members of the
Guardia Civil, demonstrates his mastery of individual light in
even its harshest form.
As printmaker, as well as photographer, Smith was exceptional.
There is a richness and luster to even the greatest enlargements,
a smoothness of grain (achieved by printing through silk and other
diffusers) and a subtle tonality.
In his own work and by his example, W. Eugene Smith helped transform
photojournalism during the middle of the last century. Though
the great picture magazines that nourished the form have gone,
an army of street photographers, documentary and photojournalists
remains. Whether consciously or not (although consciously in many
cases), they are the heirs to Smith's legacies. Both in aesthetic
and moral terms, his standards remain the best guideposts for
those who follow. (Stu Cohen)