W. Eugene Smith

W. Eugene Smith

While reading "The Road to Seeing" by Dan Winters a while back I took note of some of the photographers whom he mentioned as influences. One of those photographers is W. Eugene Smith. I was familiar with his name but I couldn't visualize any specific images I might have seen. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon an Aperture Masters of Photography volume on Smith's work in a used book store. I love this little hardcover series and I have a few of them in my collection. I was quite happy to add this one to my shelf of inspiring monographs.

Smith is primarily known for his photojournalism work, from the World War II era through the 1970s. I remembered seeing some of his war time photos in this book before in my studies of WWII. This book includes samples of his diverse collection, spanning his entire career. As I looked through this book I was stuck by the depth of Smith's images. While I've never worked in a darkroom personally, I have shot enough black and white film to know that the printed images reproduced in this book are a result of laborious effort. The chiaroscuro images with highlights in the most effective places to guide the eyes and deep black shadows that hint at just the right amount of detail can only emerge from film negatives through the work of skilled hands in the darkroom. 

The book mentioned that one of Smith's famous photos of Albert Schweitzer, which was captured on a photojournalism assignment for Life magazine, was actually a composite that he created in the darkroom. It stuck me as a very questionable thing for a photojournalist to do. Recently well known photojournalist Steve McCurry came under fire for arguably less extreme manipulation of some of his images. Interestingly, a quote by Smith on the back cover of the book reads, "My station in life is to capture the action of life, the life of the world, its humor, its tragedies, in other words, life as it is. A true picture, unposed and real." Jim Hughes wrote in this book concerning Smith's photo manipulation, "It was not the first time Smith had taken it upon himself to break the accepted rules of journalism, and it would not be the last - his poetic license might range from elaborate if invisible stage direction to printmaking magic that could turn day into night. Smith's objective was a 'truth' that sometimes transcended the facts of appearance."

Perhaps Smith's work is not photojournalism in the purist sense. Some of them tell a story beyond what may have been apparent in a snapshot. There are bits of his work that are as much works of art as they are a story. His work in documenting Pittsburgh's steel industry is a great example. Smoke and pollution are cleverly used to create a charcoal drawn aesthetic. Other images make use of silhouettes that invite interpretation on the part of the viewer. This small book has truly piqued my interest in W. Eugene Smith's photography and I plan to spend more time studying his body of work.