Icons of Photography: W. Eugene Smith

Eugene Smith was born on December 30 1918, into the flatness and emptiness of Wichita, Kansas, ‘The Air Capital of the World’. He more or less invented photo-journalism 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. Barely more than toddlers, they are walking out of a dark wood into a sun-bright glade. As in all Smith’s best work, there’s ambiguity in it, too, tearing away at his rhetoric and sentimentality. He later abandoned those two children, with not much in the way of thought or care. There is grace, though, in depth and richness of detail in the photograph’s margins – a product of his painstaking approach to print-making. He sometimes took days over one print – exposing through black silk stockings, bleaching with ferricyanide. ‘Sink into the heart of the picture,’ was his description of how the process worked.

Yet he is not a name on lips. In good measure that’s because his work is not that easy to see these days. There has not been a major show of his work for many years. There are books available but many are out of print. One of his greatest pictures — he certainly said on one occasion that it was his best — has been withdrawn from circulation.

He was also all over the place, too. Even the very best photographers generally plough a narrow furrow but Smith tore up the whole farm. He was a great war photographer, reinventing the medium in a way that still hasn’t fully filtered through or been played out. He was a great social documentarist – his images of Pittsburgh are so many, so rich and so varied as to be almost indigestible. He was a great portraitist. His images of Charles Ives and Charlie Chaplin would, by themselves, have made his name. His pictures of jazzmen, taken at his own loft in the late 1950s, shape our memories of an entire generation of musicianship.

He was a great landscape photographer, with an extraordinary, sharp sense of how to turn hills and valleys into emotion. He was a great technician, too. It’s said that each of his prints involved a minimum of 15 stages — dodging, burning, masking, reprinting. In a picture of a Spanish wake, he blacked out the eyes of the widow and her daughter, then whitened them back in, their gaze now turned to a new direction. An improved direction. Above all, he was a photojournalist, perhaps the photojournalist. He is, I’m told, an icon for photographers who don’t have icons — Don McCullin, Bailey.

If he was the complete photographer, though, he was also the completely incomplete human being. He pretty much wrote the book on photographer bonkersness. He seriously mentally disturbed, alcoholic, drugged-up, bipolar. ‘Incredibly disordered’ was the phrase his biographer chose to describe Smith’s life. He was put in a mental hospital as early as 1950. He’d been found wandering the streets in his underwear.

He started taking pictures at 14, encouraged and aided by a mother who was a hobbyist photographer herself, with her own home dark room. While still at school, he got a journeyman education taking photographs for the city’s morning and evening newspapers. When he was 17, his father — whose business had failed — committed suicide, by driving to a hospital car park and shooting himself in the stomach with a shotgun. He didn’t die immediately but not even a blood transfusion from his son could save him.

At 18, Smith went to Notre Dame on a photographer scholarship – which the university set up specially 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. That was a pattern he would repeat through his life – warmly accepted, he would turn on his benefactors.

By 1937, he was in New York. (His mother came, too, as his assistant.) He got a job at Newsweek. He was fired from Newsweek – for refusing to stop using his beloved 2 1/4 x2 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, he let the magazine hire him again.

He spent the war mostly in the Pacific, island-hopping towards Japan with American troops. He’d listen to opera the night before battle. He was wounded, twice – once setting up a shot, the other time standing when he should have been crouching. It took him two years to recover from his injuries. His photographs were a kind of 20th century Goya. ‘An indictment of war,’ he said. A celebration, too. 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 those two 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, self-pity and pain, he pointed his camera out of the window, photographing the passing parade. Robert Frank, a friend, said: ‘Gene went from a public journalist to a private artist in the loft.’

He ran a sort of salon. When Manhattan jazz was at its acme, some of its best players spent many nights there. He hired a rehearsal room for them in his building. Every night, round about eleven, they would drift up. They played. He photographed them, taped them, too — not just their music but their conversations and, in one case, the sound of them overdosing in the stair well.

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 records and 8,000 books. He collected and collected and collected. Pictures of his room show it looking like it’s just been turned over by particularly messy burglars. Obsession is the enactment of hidden desire.

He had one last great flourish in him, his work about – and most importantly, with – the victims of mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan. Here, his melodrama and humanism 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’. Yet successful as his campaign was, there was a sour afternote. Copyright of its central image, a sick girl called Tomoko, was passed to her parents. It’s a painful picture to look at. The parents removed it from circulation. Smith’s defining photograph passed into the realm of the unseeable.

In 1977, he and Aileen settled in Tucson, Arizona, where he taught and arranged his archives. He died there, on October 15, 1978, of a stroke, aged 59, with $18 in the bank – but 3,000 master prints, several hundred thousand work prints, 1600 reel-to-reel audio tapes, 25,000 records, 8,000 books and thousands of 3×5 cards with notes on them.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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