W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) is considered one of the masters of modern photojournalism. He created some of the most poignant images of war ever made. Smith's photo essays chronicling social injustice deeply moved the American public. His images of the devastating effects of mercury poisoning in Japan were some of his most evocative works.
W. Eugene Smith
William Eugene Smith was born in Wichita, Kansas on December 30, 1918. He attended Catholic elementary and high schools there from 1924 to 1935. Smith took his first photographs between 1933 and 1935. Wichita press photographer, Frank Noel, encouraged him to contribute occasional photographs to local newspapers.
When Smith's father committed suicide, newspaper accounts of the incident greatly distorted the actual circumstances. This made him question the standards of American journalism. Smith vowed to become a photojournalist, applying the highest standards to his own career. He was determined to seek absolute personal honesty in his own documentary work.
Smith studied photography on a scholarship at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, from 1936 to 1937. After graduation, he worked for the Wichita Eagle and the Wichita Beacon and then became a Newsweek staff photographer in New York. He was fired because he used what was considered a miniature camera, a 2.5 inch format twin-lens reflex. From 1938 to 1939 Smith worked as a freelance photographer for the Black Star Agency, publishing photographs in Life, Collier's, Harper's Bazaar, and other periodicals, including the New York Times. He worked with miniature cameras, creating an innovative flash technique that allowed him to produce indoor photographs that had the appearance of natural or lamp light. Smith accepted a position as a staff photographer with Life and worked there from 1939 to 1941.
Chronicled the Horrors of War
Smith visited Japan three times. His first visit was during World War II. From 1942 to 1944 Smith was a war correspondent in the Pacific theater for Popular Photography and other publications. In 1944, he returned to Life as a correspondent and photographer. Idealistic and emotional, Smith went to cover the battles of World War II filled with patriotism. He was so horrified by what he saw that he gave up determining who was right or wrong and dedicated himself to showing the horror and suffering he saw.
In 1944, from Saipan, an island in the western Pacific Ocean, Smith said in W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American Photographer, "… each time I pressed the shutter release it was a shouted condemnation hurled with the hope that the pictures might survive through the years, with the hope that they might echo through the minds of men in the future-causing them caution and remembrance and realization." Later, he said, "I would that my photographs might be, not the coverage of a news event, but an indictment of war-the brutal corrupting viciousness of its doing to the minds and bodies of men; and that my photographs might be a powerful emotional catalyst to the reasoning which would help this vile and criminal stupidity from beginning again."
Smith was assigned to the U.S. aircraft carrier Bunker Hill in 1944 and photographed bombing raids on Tokyo, the invasion of Iwo Jima, and the battle of Okinawa. His dramatic photo essays produced a collection of timeless, evocative images, including that of a tiny, fly covered, half-dead baby held up by a soldier after being rescued from a cave in Saipan; a wounded soldier, hideously bandaged, stretched out in Leyte Cathedral; and a decaying Japanese body on an Iwo Jima beach. Smith's photographic record of the Pacific theater of World War II is considered among the grimmest and most powerful visual indictments of war. On a ridge along the coast of Okinawa in 1945, Smith was hit by a shell fragment that ripped through his left hand, his face, and his mouth. He was unable to work for two years.
Set Standard for Photo Essays
After a long recuperation from his war wounds, Smith worked for Life between 1947 and 1954. His first photograph was one of his most famous. "A Walk to Paradise Garden" was an image of his two children walking toward a sunlit area on a wooded path. It was chosen as the final work in the Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1955. Working for Life, Smith published many important photo essays, including "Trial by Jury" in 1948, "The Country Doctor" in 1948, "Nurse Midwife" in 1951, "The Reign of Chemistry" in 1953, and "Spanish Village." These features set a new standard for evocative picture stories. They showed essential human experiences such as compassion, pride, daily labor, birth, and death, with strength, clarity, and beauty. His images were viewed as universal symbols. Smith's photo essay on the work of nurse-midwife, Maude Callen, touched American readers, who donated money to build her clinic in South Carolina. Photographers felt Smith represented the ideal of personal creative expression in the service of journalism. "A Man of Mercy," a profile of Dr. Albert Schweitzer as a medical missionary to lepers in Africa came out in 1954.
Growing increasingly frustrated with the restrictions of working for Life magazine, Smith resigned at the end of 1954 and became a member of the Magnum Photo Agency in 1955. During the next three years he contributed photo essays to Life, Sports Illustrated, Popular Photography, and other periodicals.
Picture editor, Stefan Lorant, needed some photographs for a pictorial history of Pittsburgh. Proceeds from sales of the book would be used to support an urban renewal program. Smith was offered the assignment and received an advance of $500 with a final fee of $1,200. The job should have taken two to three weeks to complete. Instead Smith turned it into a three-year project that resulted in an essentially unfinished work, the "Pittsburgh" photo essay. He saw in this assignment the opportunity to expand the form of the photographic essay. Smith moved to Pittsburgh where he set up a darkroom in his apartment and hired an assistant and a local guide. Working intensely, he put a lot of his own money into the project. Smith created 11,000 negatives during five months in 1955 and a few weeks in 1957. This project faltered because of Smith's often self-destructive personality, his stubbornness, and legal complications. Lorant's book finally appeared in 1964 and included 64 of Smith's images.
Attempting to salvage the work, Magnum arranged for publishing agreements with Look and Life. The deals fell apart because Smith was dissatisfied with the page layouts and kept changing them. He tried to create a complex set of themes and metaphors with many meanings. The "Pittsburgh" essay has never been published in any form approaching Smith's book-length vision. The most complete version, in his own layout, includes 88 photographs covering 37 pages. It was published in 1959 Photography Annual. Smith considered the work a failure, but the Pittsburgh project is regarded as a remarkable accomplishment that did much to push the photographic essay into a larger dimension.
During this time, Smith's marriage ended, his health deteriorated, and he was threatened with a lawsuit. He ran up huge debts with the Magnum Photo Agency and went bankrupt. This left his family in dire straits, despite the fact that Smith had received two successive Guggenheim Fellowships.
Other assignments followed. In 1956, Smith was commissioned by the American Institute of Architects to photograph contemporary American architecture in color. Smith's second trip to Japan was at the invitation of the Hitachi Corporation in 1961. He was asked to photograph the company and its employees and stayed for one year. In an essay written for the Masters of Photography website, Tony Hayden recalled seeing Smith at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. Smith arrived at Woodstock after photographing singer Bob Dylan in New York City. Smith and Hayden spent the afternoon of the first day of the festival together walking around and taking photos. Hayden recalled that Smith seemed very sympathetic with the peace movement time and felt right at home at Woodstock. Hayden noted, "He was so humble that he could melt into the camera, be the camera and be a part, and subject, of whatever he chose to photograph."
Mercury Poisoning in Minamata
In 1971, Smith returned to Japan for a third time and lived in the small fishing village of Minamata, with his wife Aileen. Although they planned to stay for only three months, the couple stayed for three years. Smith's photos on a mercury poisoning scandal in Minamata were published in Asahi Camera, Camera 35, and Life in an article called "Death-Flow from a Pipe," and in a book called Minamata. The photos brought world attention to the Minamata disease caused by mercury being released into the ocean by a company called Chisso. The most famous photo was that of Kamimura Tomoko in the bath, cradled by her mother. Born in 1956, Tomoko suffered from mercury poisoning. Mercury had entered her bloodstream through the placenta, leaving her blind, deaf, and with useless legs. Smith heard about Tomoko's daily afternoon bath and asked her mother if he could photograph them. He carefully checked the bath's lighting, which came through a dark window. Smith determined that three in the afternoon would be the best time, and took the famous photo in December 1971.
Smith and his wife were attacked and injured in January 1972 during a confrontation between mercury poisoning victims and Chisso employees at the factory in Goi. Victims were violently evicted from Chisso property. Smith had to seek medical treatment in the U.S. for his injuries. Ken Kobre described the attack in an essay at the Masters Exhibition website: "Smith almost lost his eyesight covering the story. He and his wife, armed with camera and tape-recorder, accompanied a group of patients to record a meeting the group expected to have with an official of the company. The official failed to show up. "But," Smith related, "suddenly, a group of about 100 men, on orders from the company, crowded into the room. They hit me first. They grabbed me and kicked me in the crotch and snatched the cameras, then hit me in the stomach. Then they dragged me out and picked me up and slammed my head on the concrete." Smith survived, but with limited vision in one eye.
This was Smith's last major story. It contained several of his most moving images. Smith said, "Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes-just sometimes-one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses to awareness. Much depends on the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought. Someone-or perhaps many-among us may be influenced to heed reason, to find a way to right that which is wrong, and may even search for a cure to an illness. The rest of us may perhaps feel a greater sense of understanding and compassion for those whose lives are alien to our own. Photography is a small voice. I believe in it. If it is well conceived, it sometimes works." Smith died in Tucson, Arizona on October 15, 1978.
Further Reading on W. Eugene Smith
Frizot, Michel, New History of Photography, Konemann, 1999.
Hughes, Jim, W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American Photographer, 1989.
Smith, W. Eugene and Ben Maddow, Let Truth Be the Prejudice:W. Eugene Smith His Life and Photographs, Aperture, 1998.
W. Eugene Smith: Photographs 1934-1975, edited by John T. Hill, Harry N. Abrams, 1998.
Life, Fall 1986.
Modern Photography, January 1984; October 1985.
Kobre, Ken, "A Last Interview With W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978)," The Master's Exhibition, http://www.nirvana.demon.co.uk/W.E.Smith.txt (April 17, 1999).
"PhotoReviews," PhotoGuide Japan, http://photojpn.org/DATA/review/docu1/smith.html (April 10, 1999).
"Smith, W. Eugene," Masters of Photography, http://www.masters-of-photography.com/S/smith/smith_articles1.html (April 10, 1999).