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