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W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978)W. Eugene Smith

(1918-1978)
Documentary, Photojournalism

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 capitals.

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 survivors.

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)






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