W. Eugene Smith is regarded as one of the most legendary figures in photography. A man of unmatched technical competence, he was one of the world’s best photojournalists. The skill and insight which he provided in taking a picture and his consummate skill in the darkroom makes his photographs a work of art. At the same time, he was known for his commitment to his mission as a photographer and his passion for truth. Monetary gains and personal safety were never an impediment to his mission.
Despite his excellent skills and commitment to the profession of photojournalism, he was often regarded by editors as troublesome, because he would refuse to allow his pictures, their layout and text accompanying them to be modified in accordance with the policy of the magazine. He did not accept changes to his personal vision. In a way, it allowed him to be true to himself and to his art. He raised the art of photographic essay to new heights.
Born in Wichita, Kansas in 1918, the young Smith was interested in aeronautical engineering. At the age of 14, he borrowed a camera from his mother, who was also an enthusiastic photographer, to click pictures of the planes at the airport of his town. Soon, he developed a keen interest in photography and spent his high-school years taking photographs for the local newspapers of his town. The subjects of his initial photographs included sports, aviation and the Depression tragedy of the Dust Bowl.
When Smith turned 18, in 1936, he entered the prestigious Notre Dame University. Impressed by his photography skills, the university administration created a special photographic scholarship for him. However, soon, Smith got frustrated by the demands that were made on his work and a year later, he left the university for New York. In New York, he joined the staff of Newsweek, but could not last there even for a year. He was fired for using a miniature 2¼ x 2¼ camera for an assignment, when he was specifically given orders against using it. For Smith, smaller cameras gave him more freedom of seeing. However, over the years, he worked with a range of cameras, including the 4 x 5 press camera. Most of his works were shot using 35 mm cameras. At times, he would have six or seven of these cameras around his neck!
After leaving Newsweek, Smith became a freelancer. In his capacity as a freelancer, he was associated with Life, Colliers, American, The New York Times and other publications. A year later, in 1939, his discovery of the world of music had a major influence on his thinking and creative outlook – an influence which remained throughout his lifetime and is visible in his works. In the same year, he signed a retainer contract with the Life magazine. He remained associated with Life magazine for almost two years, before leaving it in 1941. In 1942, his career took a major turn.
As the US joined the Second World War, Smith became a war correspondent, first for Ziff-Davis and later for Life magazine. Most of his time as a war photojournalist was spent in the Pacific. He covered 26 carrier combat missions and 13 invasions. On D-Day, Smith was in Okinawa and he hitch-hiked some 1200 miles to Guam only to get the fastest possible delivery of his pictures back to Life magazine. He was known as the photographer who would take any chance to get the picture.
On May 23, 1945, while photographing an essay titled “A Day in Life of a Front Line Soldier”, Smith was seriously injured by a Japanese shell fragment. Later, in the hospital, Smith commented, “”I forgot to duck but I got a wonderful shot of those who did… my policy of standing up when the others are down finally caught up with me.” Such was his dedication to his work!
Smith’s war wounds cost him two years of his career. He had to spend time in the hospital, and also had to get plastic surgery done. Then, on one day, when he was still in the process of recovering from his injuries, Smith took a walk with his two children and came back with one of the best photographs of all time. At that time, it was still painful for him to operate a camera. Titled, “A Walk to Paradise Garden”, this memorable image came to serve as the final picture in the famous “Family of Man” exhibition.
Between 1947 to 1954, Smith produced the great photo-essays for Life magazine which were to redefine the meaning of photojournalism. These essays established him as the undisputed master of the field. These essays were titled the following: Country Doctor, Hard Times on Broadway, Spanish Village, Southern Midwife and Man of Mercy. The last essay, Man or Mercy, was about one Dr. Schweitzer of Africa. In 1955, once again, Smith resigned from Life magazine because of their improper handling of this essay.
Following this, in the next two years, Smith spent his time producing the monumental picture essay on the city of Pittsburgh. It is regarded as one of the most complex and ambitious picture essays attempted by a single photographer. It helped him develop ideas of establishing a relationship between picture, its layout and text in a single expressive entity. For this project, he received some aid from Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956-1957, but it was largely self-financed and threw him into debt.
A second Guggenheim fellowship was received by him in 1958-1959, with which he began a project of photographing the city as he saw it through the window of his loft in New York, during the day and night and in all seasons of the year. A part of this photographic series was published in Life magazine, entitled “Drama Beneath a Window”. At the same time, a part of the Pittsburgh project was published in the Photography Annual. However, personal crises and illness did not allow him to bring the text part of the project to the quality, which he could personally accept.
Apart from photography, Smith taught a course in photojournalism, titled, “Photography Made Difficult” at New School for Social Research, New York. He also served as the president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Throughout his life, Smith remained an idealist, a committed photographer and a dedicated photojournalist. In his own words, “ My principle concern is for honesty, above all honesty with myself…” Smith died in Tucson, Arizona in 1978.