Criticism — From the December 2017 issue

Framing The Shadows

The luminary vision of W. Eugene Smith

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Smith began his career as a precociously competent photojournalist with wondrous technical skills; the startling chiaroscuro that later marked his work showed itself early. Real professional standing and success began to come his way during the war, when he worked for Ziff Davis and then, beginning in 1944, for Life. His photographic sensibility made the emerging genre of the photo essay a perfect vehicle for him, allowing him to push toward something beyond news reporting and the capturing of revealing moments — namely, a technique of documentary storytelling in which the photographs were planned and executed with a complex narrative in mind. (In pursuit of these narratives Smith had no qualms about occasionally posing a photograph — an artifice that, like his bleaching of prints, was later condemned by purists.) His first war-era essay, which features an Army field hospital in a church in the Philippines, appeared in Life in late 1944. The photographs are shockingly elegant, given the subject matter, and technically miraculous, given the darkness inside the church, where the doctors and nurses worked by candlelight. Darkness was, increasingly, Smith’s métier.

“Nettie Smith,” 1947. Courtesy Collection Center for Creative Photography,
University of Arizona © The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.

In Okinawa in May 1945, Smith, who took horrendous physical risks throughout his career, was badly wounded by a shell explosion; he spent a year recovering, and would be in pain for the rest of his life. In 1946, he resumed his work for Life. His approach to photography was more or less settled: the work would be physically taxing in terms of locations and time, spiritually taxing in terms of the intensity of attention given to the stark realities of human suffering, and technically taxing in terms of how little light he could work with and still create a usable print. His mature style, in other words, was to make everything as difficult as possible. Smith spent many days lying in the Colorado grass to get the opening image for his “Country Doctor” essay of 1948: the doctor on foot, head down, taking a shortcut through the weeds. The image Smith had been waiting for manifested itself one morning as a storm was gathering — the doctor passed by, dark clouds looming almost on top of him, suggesting his emotional burdens and his proximity to death.

Smith’s resignation from Life inaugurated a more private and obsessive phase. The two years he spent working on the Pittsburgh project were followed by his sudden move to Manhattan, to a walk-up on Sixth Avenue that came to be known as the Jazz Loft. He spent his days either in the darkroom or shooting the street outside his windows, and his nights shooting the musicians who gathered after gigs in the loft to jam until daylight. He wired much of the building with microphones hooked up to reel-to-reel recorders and made tapes, not merely of the thousands of hours of music (which now form a substantial contribution to jazz history) but also of the happenstance sounds of his own studio while he worked — his discussions with visitors, his records, what was playing on the radio or the television (ball games, news, even a talk show segment about violence in literature with Tennessee Williams and Yukio Mishima).

The final stage of Smith’s career began in 1971 with what became, politically and historically, his most important project: photographing the residents of Minamata, a coastal city in Japan whose waters and aquatic food supply had been poisoned by mercury dumped by the Chisso Corporation, a chemical giant, leading to birth defects, deformities, and other health problems among the citizens, especially the children, many of whom were exposed in utero to mercury ingested by their mothers. Smith spent two years there; the photographs he took were considered crucial in the court decision that, for the first time, held a Japanese corporation liable for the environmental damage it had caused and the lives it had ruined; they also made Smith into something of a national hero in Japan. Minamata (1975) was the only thematically unified book of photographs Smith published during his lifetime.

Country doctor making a house call, 1947 © The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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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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