Icons in Focus: W. Eugene Smith

1

A photojournalist noted for his war photographs and outstanding photo essays, W. Eugene Smith remains an influential figure for his "humanistic photography."

William Eugene Smith. Photos via jazzinphoto.wordpress.com and lsparts.com

“Passion is in all great searches and is necessary to all creative endeavors,” William Eugene Smith (December 30, 1918 – October 15, 1978) once said, and indeed, he was driven by passion for capturing compelling humanist stories throughout his eventful life as a photojournalist. From his stint as a photographer in publications such as Newsweek and LIFE Magazine in the late 1930s to late 1940s, to the time he joined Magnum in 1955, his works are a testament to this tireless quest for perfection and eye-opening photos.

While many of the scenes he captured on film showed the horrors of World War II, one can’t help but notice that his humanistic side was deeply ingrained in his documentation of wars, social issues, and daily life in various locations. More than a photographer who took pretty pictures, Smith has been credited and lauded for taking those that invoke thoughts and emotions from the viewer. Such was especially the case for notable photo essays like Country Doctor (1948), Nurse Midwife (1951), and Minamata (1971).

Pacific Campaign photos taken by W. Eugene Smith during the World War II. Photos via Magnum

In pursuit of compelling tales to tell through his lens, Smith often put his life on the line. He was injured twice — first by mortar fire on the front lines of Okinawa, Japan during World War II, and second from the 1972 attack by the employees of the Chisso Company near Tokyo which caused the deterioration of his sight in one eye. As to why he was willing to put himself in danger for a story, he once told the legendary portraitist Philippe Halsmann:

“I think the photographer should have some reason or purpose. I would hate to risk my life to take another bloody picture for the Daily News, but if it might change man’s mind against war, then I feel that it would be worth my life. But I would never advise anybody else to make this decision. It would have to be their own decision. For example, when I was on the carrier, I didn’t want to fly on Christmas Day because I didn’t want to color all the other Chistmases for my children.”

Parallel scenes captured by W. Eugene Smith for Nurse Midwife (1951) and Country Doctor (1948).
Through his 1971 photo essay entitled Minamata , W. Eugene Smith exposed the effects of severe mercury poisoning which occurred in Minamata City in Japan. The centerpiece of the essay is the heartbreaking photo entitled Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath (last photo).

Those who worked with the American photojournalist knew him for as a maniacal, emotionally-detached, and aggressive person, but many of his photos seem to show a different, more sensitive side. Again, in a discussion with Halsmann, Smith said that potentially intrusive snaps are justified only if they serve an important purpose. However, he also said that above all else, the photographer should know when it’s more important to help their subjects:

“One is D-Day in the Philippines, of a woman who is struggling giving birth in a village that has just been destroyed by our shelling, and this woman giving birth against this building — my only thought at that time was to help her. If there had been someone else at least as competent to help as I was then, I would have photographed. But as I stood as an altering circumstance — no damn picture is worth it!“

To top all of W. Eugene Smith’s qualities as an accomplished photographer, he was also known for his incessant perfectionism. He was so obsessive in printing his own photos that he didn’t stop until he ended up with what he considered as a “perfect” print. When asked by Halsmann why he prints his own pictures, he simply answered, “The same reason a great writer doesn’t turn his draft over to a secretary… I will retouch.”

To learn more about W. Eugene Smith and his work, head over to Magnum Photos, Wikipedia and a great article by Eric Kim entitled 7 Lessons W. Eugene Smith Has Taught Me About Street Photography. You may also want to check out: Influential Photographs: The Walk to Paradise Garden, 1946 by W. Eugene Smith

written by plasticpopsicle on 2014-04-23 in #lifestyle #icons-in-focus #w-eugene-smith #photography-icon #photography-master #analogue-lifestyle

One Comment

  1. rbruce63
    rbruce63 ·

    Another source is Hughes, Jim. Shadow and Substance, The. Life and Work of an American Photographer. McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-031123-4

More Interesting Articles

  • A Salute to the Masters: R.I.P. (A Tribute to George Krause)

    written by sirio174 on 2015-06-20 in #world #lifestyle
    A Salute to the Masters: R.I.P. (A Tribute to George Krause)

    This article is dedicated to the multifaceted American photographer George Krause and to his series depicting funeral monuments realized between 1962 and 1963. I was able to know about this series thanks to an important essay on photography written by former Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Director of Photography, John Szarkowski. For this tribute, I loaded my trusty Praktica camera with a roll of Ilford film and took a series of photos in the Monumental Cemetery in my city, Como. Take a look!

    2
  • A Memoir of Saigon by Raymond Depardon

    written by Julien Matabuena on 2015-05-25 in #world #news
    A Memoir of Saigon by Raymond Depardon

    In his new book, the award-winning French photojournalist and Magnum photographer recalls his experiences in war-torn Saigon—now known as Ho Chi Minh City—through eye-opening photographs and words.

  • Influential Photographs: Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman (1942) by Gordon Parks

    written by Julien Matabuena on 2015-09-11 in #world #lifestyle
    Influential Photographs: Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman (1942) by Gordon Parks

    Arguably the defining photograph of his career, "Washington, D.C. Government charwoman" by Gordon Parks depicts Mrs. Ella Watson, an employee of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), holding a broom and with a mop and the American flag hanging at the back—a pose reminiscent of Grant Woods' famous painting, "American Gothic" (1930).

  • Shop News

    Standard Photo Development Services

    Standard Photo Development Services

    Done shooting and want your films to be processed? We can process your colour and black & white 35mm, 120 or 110 films! Development, prints and scans are also included. (Service availability depends on your markets)

  • 13 Magnificent Ruins Around the World

    written by lomographymagazine on 2015-08-14 in #world #lifestyle
    13 Magnificent Ruins Around the World

    Marvel at fortresses, stadiums and temples that remain, in spite of storms and wars, worthy of a photograph.

  • LomoAmigo Bruno Giacco

    written by Jill Tan Radovan on 2015-09-04 in #people #lomoamigos
    LomoAmigo Bruno Giacco

    For someone who was previously disinterested in photographic work, his newfound passion for photography is astounding. His photos have an edgy feel to them; and for someone who hasn't been shooting for a long time, his distinct style is - quite surprisingly - discernible. Meet this emerging fashion photographer from Buenos Aires who shoots on film and recently, the Diana+ Premium Glass Lens.

    1
  • A Salute to the Masters: Santa Barbara 2015 (A Tribute to Bruce Davidson)

    written by sirio174 on 2016-02-06 in #world #lifestyle
    A Salute to the Masters: Santa Barbara 2015 (A Tribute to Bruce Davidson)

    This article is dedicated to Bruce Davidson, one of the most important American documentary photographers and a leading figure of the Magnum agency. Recalling his photos of the Worcester Fire Department in 1999, I'll show you my coverage of Como Fire Department's public demonstration, an annual event commemorating St. Barbara.

  • Shop News

    Be Sharp and Get Accurate Shots!

    Be Sharp and Get Accurate Shots!

    Never go wrong with amount of light entering your lenses. Perfect for any photo shoots, very handy, lightweight and extremely versatile!

  • A Salute to the Masters: Judo (A Tribute to Sabine Weiss)

    written by sirio174 on 2015-04-18 in #world #lifestyle
    A Salute to the Masters: Judo (A Tribute to Sabine Weiss)

    This article is a tribute to the street and humanist photographer Sabine Weiss. Considered a living legend in street photography, she likes to photograph daily lives of people, trying to capture the emotions she recognizes around her. Weiss like to photograph people of all ages but she especially loves to take photos of children, masterfully immortalizing their spontaneous gestures and emotions. For this article, I was inspired by one of her rare sports photos of some children practicing judo. Do you want to know more about this great artist? Well, read on!

  • A Salute to the Masters: Swing Festival in Como (A Tribute to Alexey Brodovitch)

    written by sirio174 on 2015-08-08 in #world #lifestyle
    A Salute to the Masters: Swing Festival in Como (A Tribute to Alexey Brodovitch)

    This year marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of one of the most influential photography books ever, "Ballet" by the photographer, art director, and graphic designer Alexey Brodovitch. Brodovitch took a series of photos of classical dance in a very unconventional way, using very slow exposure times, trying to catch the true essence of Russian ballets. For this article, I took a series of photos at the Swing Crash Festival in my city, Como, held in June 2015.

    4
  • Meet Our LomoGuru: herbert-4

    written by Eunice Abique on 2015-02-14 in #people #lifestyle #videos
    Meet Our LomoGuru: herbert-4

    Herbert Morris has been taking photographs for almost 60 years. From being his family's event photographer, he now acts as one of the community's resident guides who's always willing to give advice—photography related or otherwise—to fellow lomographers. In this interview, Herbert shares tidbits about his life as a war veteran and how being a sneaky photographer preserved the memories of his aunt.

    32
  • Shop News

    Lomo'Instant Reykjavik Edition

    Lomo'Instant Reykjavik Edition

    The latest addition to the Lomo’Instant family! Inspired by the Icelandic midnight sky, Get endless creativity, take multiple exposed instant snapshots, experiment with long exposure and light painting shots!

  • 'Soundcheck Sessions': Stephen Dowling's Exhibition

    written by gise11e on 2015-05-04 in #people #news #events
    'Soundcheck Sessions': Stephen Dowling's Exhibition

    Stephen Dowling is a photojournalist and longterm LomoAmigo who is presenting his series, "Soundcheck Sessions," as his first exhibition for Lomography this month. In an interview, we asked him a few questions about his work and what goes on behind the scenes.

  • Newcomer of the Week: _baunovart_

    written by lomography on 2015-11-15 in #world #lifestyle #videos
    Newcomer of the Week: _baunovart_

    For Patrice Baunov, film photography is an "intimate medium that shows the interaction between the photographer and his surroundings during a specific moment." In this interview, our well-rounded newcomer from Berlin, Germany talks about his wide range of interests and how he applies Lomography's "Don't think just shoot" attitude on his photography and daily life.

    4
  • From Experimental to Ordinary: LomoAmigo Martin Dietrich Tests the Minitar-1 Art Lens

    written by Lomography on 2016-01-29 in #people #lomoamigos
    From Experimental to Ordinary: LomoAmigo Martin Dietrich Tests the Minitar-1 Art Lens

    In order to escape the world of facts and figures, tax auditor Martin Dietrich discovered photography as his creative counterpart almost seven years ago. On a trip to Paris he fell in love with analog photography and the magic of film has been fascinating to him since then. But he also appreciates the benefits of digital photography. For Lomography he tested the Lomo LC-A Minitar-1 Art Lens on his Fuji X-Pro 1 camera. Check out Martin's photos and learn more about the founder of the popular Neoprime magazine.

    2