Criticism — From the December 2017 issue

Framing The Shadows

The luminary vision of W. Eugene Smith

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It is not beyond reason that it is also the psychotic in men that drives them to greatness.

 — W. Eugene Smith

Near the end of 1954, at thirty-five, the photographer W. Eugene Smith quit his job at Life magazine, departing an institution that had brought him international fame, publishing his astonishing war photographs and innovative photo essays. His resignation followed years of fighting with his editors over the processing and layout of his pictures. The final battle concerned a spread on Albert Schweitzer, the French-German physician and theologian who had received the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work in West Africa. Smith saw in Schweitzer something paternalistic and authoritarian, and he wanted the photographs and the language of the story to suggest that. Life was having none of it; conventional thinking at the time had Schweitzer as a living saint, and conventional thinking prevailed.

Seeking freelance work, Smith joined Magnum Photos, the cooperative agency founded after World War II by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among others, and soon he had his first gig: $1,200 (a pleasant $11,000 in 2017 terms) to spend three weeks in Pittsburgh and deliver a hundred prints, a portion of which would be included in a book commemorating the city’s bicentennial. An easy job, following instructions, but Smith never did follow instructions. He was mesmerized by Pittsburgh — its machinery, its soot, its fire, and its life — so he ended up working on the project for more than two years, taking 17,000 photographs and filling his home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, with prints and layout boards for a planned book of his own that never happened. He stayed awake for days at a time (with the help of amphetamines), harassing at all hours his assistant, his wife, his children, and even their live-in caretaker. After this long, manic siege, Smith split from the family to move into a run-down loft in New York City, where he embarked on another crazy documentary journey (the loft itself). John Morris, the head of Magnum, arranged a $10,000 contract with Life for a selection of the Pittsburgh photographs (a staggering fee, worth more than $90,000 today), but Smith — who was dead broke, who owed thousands of dollars in back property taxes and other debts, and whose family would soon have to move from their home — turned the deal down. As we learn from Jim Hughes’s biography, Shadow and Substance, Morris wrote to Smith’s editor at Life in the aftermath of the debacle, “I think Gene is worth all the anguish. . . . I recognize in him something which I don’t fully comprehend, but simply feel — and feel sure — is there.”

“Steelworker with Goggles,” Pittsburgh, 1955. Courtesy Collection Center for Creative Photography,
University of Arizona © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith. All photographs by W. Eugene Smith

As his family and colleagues could certainly testify, Smith, one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, made sure the anguish never let up. He was born in 1918 in Wichita, Kansas, to a Catholic mother of mean and frugal disposition (the portrait Smith took of her later in life is harrowing for its furious-looking anhedonia) and a father who, when his son was seventeen, shot himself in the local hospital parking lot after six-thirty Mass. By then Smith was regularly contributing images to both of the Wichita daily papers, and after a short stint at Notre Dame, he went to New York to make his living as a photographer. Four decades later, not yet sixty, he died, one of the most admired photographers in the world, with eighteen dollars in the bank and a filthy house full of hungry cats.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His story “A Shrinking World, An Opening Sky” appeared in the May 2016 issue.

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