To pick only five photos from any distinguished photographer’s catalog is difficult most days. Today, in particular, it’s outright impossible. That’s because today’s subject is none other than the master of the photo essay, W. Eugene Smith.
Smith’s career is the stuff of legend. His work includes classic photo essays such as Country Doctor, Minamata, and his magnum opus, Pittsburgh, a photo essay so large in scope that it still hasn’t been seen in its entirety. With every successive collection of photos, Smith pushed the form of the photo essay (and photography itself) to its very limits.
When I look back on all the photographers I’ve studied, W. Eugene Smith is the one who’s influenced me the most. I find I can always come back to one of his photos and see and learn something new every time, whether it be about composition, photo technique, or photo ethics. So instead of trying to reduce his impossibly large catalog of images down to his five absolute best, I’m going to pick the five images from which I’ve learned the most, and what they’ve taught me. Let’s get started.
Waiting For Survivors
This first photo is my personal favorite of W. Eugene Smith’s, and a great introduction to his work. Not only does it showcase Smith’s signature style of classically informed composition, it also reveals his sensitivity towards the often tragic events he was assigned to cover.
“Waiting for Survivors” came about in the immediate aftermath of the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria, an Italian ocean liner bound for New York City. The tragedy was, and still is, the worst disaster to occur in United States waters and one that newspapers clamored to cover.
One would expect such coverage to involve shocking photos of the sinking ship, or of survivors being helped ashore (and there were plenty of those images made by other photogs). Eugene Smith thought differently. Instead of inducing shock, he wanted empathize with his audience by portraying the nervous anticipation of a nation as the lives of Andrea Doria’s passengers hung in the balance.
Smith accomplished this with the image of a nun waiting for news about the survivors of the wreck. A scene like this is already ripe for a photojournalist’s picking, but it is Smith’s timing and compositional nous that makes it special. Smith caught the nun leaning slightly to the left, with her hand covering her mouth and eyes looking upward in anticipation. Smith also makes the nun’s white habit do double-duty in this image; it frames her face and also provides emphasis by way of stark contrast from the grey background. It’s a simple composition, but one timed and crafted with Smith’s signature standard of perfection.
The Walk to Paradise Garden
“The Walk to Paradise Garden” is a tonal shift from Smith’s often intense and tragic subject matter. But it’s precisely because of this shift that it was one of Smith’s personal favorite photos. Devoid of context, the image of two children walking out of a dark forest toward the light is already beautiful as it is. But when we understand the backstory of this shot it becomes even more poignant.
Two years before this picture was taken, Eugene Smith worked as a photojournalist in the Pacific theater of World War II, photographing the horrors of war from Iwo Jima to Guam. During this time, he was wounded by shell fragmentation and was sent home. His recovery, both physically and psychologically, was brutal to such an extent that he couldn’t even use his camera.
After two years, Smith became fed up and impatient with the recovery process and decided one day to load a roll of film. Seeing as his previous photographs were of pain and tragedy, he wanted his first photograph in two years to be one of hope and new life, and so he chose as his subjects his own children, Pat and Juanita.
As for the rest of this story, it’s best for the man himself to tell it:
“Pat saw something in the clearing, he grasped Juanita by the hand and they hurried forward. While I followed my children into the undergrowth and the group of taller trees—how they were delighted at every little discovery!—and observed them, I suddenly realized that at this moment, in spite of everything, in spite of all the wars and all I had gone through that day, I wanted to sing a sonnet to life and to the courage to go on living it….”
Spanish Wake is a fascinating piece of Eugene Smith’s body of work in that it contains a great many lessons for the photographer, as well as insight into Smith’s own philosophy towards making images.
On one level, this is an example of Smith’s classically informed style of composition. He heightens the drama of the scene by way of heavy contrast, which is so heavy that it creates a dramatic chiaroscuro effect (favored by painters such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt) which naturally emphasizes everything the light hits. Smith also paid particular attention to the eye-lines of each subject, which eventually lead the viewer straight to the corpse laying upon the bed, as well as expressing the inner grief of each of the mourning subjects. It’s also worth noting that this photo bears an eerie resemblance to one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Whether or not this was intentional is anybody’s guess, but considering Smith’s penchant for classicism I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.
On another level, the creation of this photo can teach us a little bit about photo ethics. If the lighting in this photo seems too perfect to be natural, that’s because it’s staged. The photo’s lighting, subject placement, and even the eye-lines are all either staged or retouched. Candid photography purists may be put off by this, but to this end Smith himself offers up his own arguments.
For Smith, authenticity of the emotion of a scene outweighed the authenticity of the scene itself. In a publicized interview between him and another great photographer, Philippe Halsmann, Smith says, “I don’t object to staging only if I feel that it is an intensification of something that is absolutely authentic to the place.” Smith’s code of ethics dictated that he only ask the family for permission to photograph (which was given enthusiastically by the son of the deceased) and then felt it was his duty to authentically portray the grief of the family. For him, that was justification enough to retouch.
His last words on the subject in the interview illuminates his attitude towards editing more than any others:
“I didn’t write the rules — why should I follow them? Since I put a great deal of time and research to know what I am about? I ask and arrange if I feel it is legitimate. The honesty lies in my — the photographer’s — ability to understand.”
Perhaps Eugene Smith’s most famous series of photos is the Country Doctor photo essay. It’s the essay that established him as the master of that form, and set the standard for every photo essay to follow.
In 1948, the US was experiencing an alarming shortage of doctors practicing in remote areas, and LIFE decided to show how damaging the shortage really was. W. Eugene Smith was then assigned by the magazine to cover Dr. Ernest Guy Ceriani, a country doctor practicing in the small town of Kremmling, Colorado. The ensuing essay would see Smith following Dr. Ceriani throughout the town and countryside, detailing the often gruesome cases Ceriani would be called upon to fix at any hour.
What makes this particular essay such a masterwork was Smith’s ability to capture the raw emotion of Ceriani and his patients. By what Smith called “fading into the wallpaper”, he was able to get up close to Ceriani and his patients at a truly personal level. Through his lens we can really see and feel the exasperation and desperation of a single doctor called upon to care for a small town and four hundred miles of countryside, as well as the terror and pain of that area’s afflicted citizens.
Of the many incredible photos in the essay, my favorite is Smith’s portrait of Ceriani at rest after performing an operation. Ceriani’s tired slump as well as his blank downward gaze perfectly epitomizes his reaction to the near-Sisyphusian task of caring for an entire countryside by himself. Smith finishes the image by casting Ceriani in a harsh light and using high contrast, elevating the stress and tension of his situation.
Iwazo Funaba’s Crippled Hand
Our last photo is one from W. Eugene Smith’s final photo essay, Minamata. Hardcore Smith fans may be expecting the flagship photo of this essay, which happens to also one of the finest photos ever made, but out of respect for the family and memory of those depicted we will choose a different but equally powerful image; Iwazo Funaba’s Crippled Hand.
Iwazo Funaba was one of the many victims of Minamata disease, a disease caused by the illegal dumping of industrial waste by the Chisso Corporation in the small fishing town of Minamata, Japan. The waste bioaccumulated in the fish and the seas surrounding Minamata, and when the fish were eaten by the town’s residents, the result was severe mercury poisoning. Over a span of thirty-six years, tens of thousands of people were affected by the disease, with little to no intervention by the local government or the Chisso Corporation.
W. Eugene Smith and his wife Aileen Smith took it upon themselves to chronicle the sufferings of Minamata’s citizens from 1971 to 1973 in the hope that they could raise awareness about Minamata disease. What resulted was a masterclass of a photo essay. The entire collection of photos illustrates perfectly the horrors of Minamata disease, with Smith using wide-angle distortion, high contrast, and extreme close-ups to heighten the horror of these already horrific scenes.
Of the many incredible images in this essay (including the aforementioned), the photo of Iwazo Funaba’s crippled hand always stands out to me. Smith’s use of shallow depth-of-field is masterful here, as Funaba’s out-of-focus head serves as the perfect background to her contorted hand. We can also make out that Funaba’s head is tilted upwards and her mouth is agape, which suggests that she’s screaming in pain. Gruesome as it is, it’s a powerful image that perfectly communicates the pain of the diseased victims.
W. Eugene Smith’s repertoire is much more vast than this list can suggest, and I would highly recommend that any aspiring photographer or photo enthusiast delve deeper into his catalog. Below are some useful links:
The Jazz Loft (movie)