W.Eugene Smith Profile
Eugene Smith was born in 1918, into the flatness and emptiness of Wichita, Kansas, ‘The Air Capital of the World’.
He more or less invented photojournalism as an art. Combining the high-contrast lighting and radical composition of German Expressionist cinema with the dramatic chiaroscuro of Renaissance painting, he made heroes of the ordinary: Spanish peasants, Welsh miners, a country doctor, a midwife. He photographed Albert Schweitzer, too.
He liked photographing the sick and their healers. “I've never made any picture, good or bad, without paying for it in emotional turmoil,” he said.
Mostly, of course, he photographed what was in his head – by finding its counterpart in the world. It was a black and white place in Smith’s pictures (and head), a world of dramas dramatised, of heroes and, occasionally, villains.
His biggest show, at New York’s Jewish Museum in 1970, was called 'Let Truth Be The Prejudice'.
His most famous picture is ‘The Walk To Paradise Garden’. It’s of his two children – who he later abandoned. Barely more than toddlers, they are walking out of a dark wood into a sun-bright glade. There’s ambiguity in it, as well, though – as there is in all Smith’s best work – tearing away at his rhetoric and sentimentality. In particular, it’s there in the depth and richness of detail in the photograph’s margins, the product of his painstaking approach to printmaking.
He sometimes took days over one print – exposing through black silk stockings, bleaching with ferricyanide.
He started taking pictures at 14. While still at school, he got a journeyman education taking photographs for the city’s morning and evening newspapers. At 18, he went to Notre Dame on a photographer scholarship – which the university set up especially for him. Not that this stopped him from dropping out after a year, to escape advice and guidance that he saw as well meant but plain wrong. There was a pattern there he would repeat through his life – warmly accepted, he would turn on his benefactors.
Oh, and when he was 17, his father committed suicide.
He got a job at 'Newsweek'. He was fired from 'Newsweek' – for refusing to stop using his beloved 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 camera (later, he’d work with half a dozen 35mm cameras slung around him). He was hired by 'Life'. He resigned from 'Life'. Then, later, let the magazine hire him again.
He spent the war mostly in the Pacific, island-hopping towards Japan with American troops. He was wounded, twice — once setting up a shot, the other time standing when he should have been crouching. His photographs were a kind of 20th century Goya. “An indictment of war,” he said. A celebration, too, inevitably. See ‘Marine Demolition Team Blasting Out a Cave on Hill 382, Iwo Jima, 1945’.
In the immediate post-war years he taught himself — and the world — how to construct a magazine photo-essay. In 1955, he joined Magnum. Paid to photograph Pittsburgh for three weeks, he took three years on the job, amassing 21,000 negatives and getting beaten up by the very workers he sought to heroise.
In 1957, he left his wife and children in the suburbs and penury. He moved to a Manhattan loft, on 28th and 6th, near the flower market. There, high on speed and drink and his pain, he pointed his camera out of the window, photographing the passing parade. He ran a sort of salon, too. When Manhattan jazz was at its acme, some of its best players spent many nights at Gene’s. Roland Kirk was a regular. Paul Bley and Thelonious Monk, also — particularly Monk whose mental fragility and oddity was the equal of Smith’s. His portrait of a hatted Monk arched back and smoking, lit from behind, has an empathic sweetness. Along the way, he collected 25,000 albums and 8000 books. Obsession is the enactment of hidden desire.
He had one last great flourish in him, his work about – and importantly, with – the victims of mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan. Here, his melodrama and humanism had finally found a suitable home. He spent years there, recording the physical ravages and psychological traumas – and getting beaten up by company goons.
His second wife, Aileen, who worked with him on the Minamata project, said he had “a childlike enthusiasm for everything, but as well as being a great photographer he needed people to save him along the way.” In 1977, he and Aileen settled in Tucson, Arizona, where he taught and arranged his archives.
He died there, on 15 October 1978, of a stroke, aged 59, with $18 in the bank.
To see the work of W.Eugene Smith visit http://www.smithfund.org
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