W. Eugene Smith (1918–78) may not be the most impossible character in the history of American photojournalism, but he is definitely a contender. In a profession that attracts more than its share of obstinate, hot-tempered idealists, he holds the record for firings and rehirings, dramatic resignations from magazines and guilds, unpaid electricity bills, evictions, and emotional I.O.U.s. At the same time, his perfectionism drove him to make some of the most reproduced images of the twentieth century—testaments to the victims of war, madness, and industrial disaster; suites of photographs that told stories about quiet heroism in out-of-the-way places. As his colleague Arnold Newman said of Smith: “He’s crazy, but he’s great.”
How crazy, lonely, manipulative, gripped by demons he remained throughout his life was not known before this new biography by Jim Hughes. For those photographers and critics who have installed Smith as a selfless crusader and a martyr to corporate journalism—and some continue to do so—Hughes’s accounts of his behavior as husband, father, friend, and employee will be eye-opening. Rampant independence masked a terrible neediness in Smith; he answered any rift in friendship with the threat of suicide. Keeping himself going with large doses of alcohol and Dexedrine, he was unable to give up control to anyone, especially to editors, publishers, and curators, most of whom only wanted to help him realize ambitious projects. Given the freedom to work unhindered by financial constraints, Smith more often than not still couldn’t deliver.
Upon reading the many eyewitness reports here of Smith’s unreliable behavior, as well as his own agonizing letters, one wonders how he got anything done living in such an overexcited state. But, as Hughes discovered, Smith’s personal problems did not interfere with picture-taking. He shot constantly and saved everything. Toward the end of his life, he shipped his possessions to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, which now owns forty-four thousand pounds of Smith material: cameras, writings, thousands of prints and negatives, recordings, darkroom and woodworking tools, a locker and an old refrigerator.
Hughes, a former magazine editor who worked closely with Smith toward the end of his life, spent ten years sifting through this mass and rounding out his understanding of Smith through hundreds of interviews and other research. He has produced a biography that must be admired for its meticulous labor. But he takes it for granted that his audience shares his insatiable appetite for Smith’s manic ups and downs, a mistake compounded by his failure to make any tough critical judgments about the artistic legacy of his subject. While Hughes manages to bring to life Smith’s concentration at work (silent, looking, shifting slowly like a crane or a Japanese dancer), he never makes clear how Smith developed his pictorial style—the dense chiaroscuro, the “Rembrandt” lighting—or where Smith fits into the pantheon of photographers. Smith’s greatness will elude most readers who plow through this mammoth book.
Photography and music—he often equated the two—were Smith’s whole life. He discovered both as a boy, and received his first camera at age eleven; he set up a darkroom in the family kitchen and built an enlarger with help from an uncle and an article in Popular Mechanics. The best parts of Hughes’s book are the early chapters about Smith’s childhood—a Norman Rockwell painting set in Wichita, Kansas. As a teenager, Smith quickly became an accomplished news photographer, his work showing up regularly in the Wichita Eagle. He earned the nickname “Flash” for his annoying, blinding use of the flashgun. Hughes finds evidence that, without models or forebears, Smith even then had higher aspirations for himself. At the age of sixteen, he wrote in an album next to a photograph of a flower, “Gene Smith, artist.”
This Middle American idyll came to an abrupt end with his father’s suicide in 1936. The Depression wiped out several risky investments that had given the family a measure of prosperity. The suicide note advised Gene to save money, a skill he never acquired or even attempted to acquire. In 1938, after a semester at Notre Dame, he left for New York and found work as a part-time staff photographer for News-Week magazine; a year later he arranged a similar deal with Life, then only a few years old but already one of the most prestigious showcases for photo-journalists. He was barely twenty.
Photography and music—he often equated the two—were Smith’s whole life.
Coming of age during the boom in American picture magazines, Smith had ready outlets for his main interest as an artist: people in action. He did plenty of celebrity, day-in-the-life, and little-guy stories. Hughes finds instances of “simulation” in these staged routines of men and women at work, a practice Smith later deplored. But as an ambitious professional, he wanted to test himself with the ultimate assignment: World War II. In 1942 he boarded a troop ship for the Pacific theater, along with his phonograph, record collection, and hundreds of pounds of lights, cameras, and lenses. In his weighted-down style, Smith worked more like a movie director on location than a light-footed freelancer.
War scarred Smith forever. Even before a mortar attack on Okinawa badly wounded him in 1945, he responded internally to the carnage he saw during the assaults on Saipan and Guam. Frail, unfit for service due to bad eyes and a broken eardrum, Smith sensed that the suffering and redemption that he witnessed daily offered some sort of personal revelation. He was ashamed that his photographs had “missed the war”: that they didn't correspond to the transformation in his soul.
The book is mute about Smith’s religious upbringing and formative reading (Shelley, Emerson, Schweitzer would be my guess), peculiar omissions in light of the minutiae that clogs the narrative. Smith’s writings are imbued with the flowery language of spiritual torment. His letters, quoted here at exhaustive length, reveal an observant, empathetic man obsessed with his mission. He was less afraid of the bullets than of “losing his way” as an artist. Some shipmates thought that beneath Smith’s daring—his need to be as close to the action as possible—was a death wish.
Hughes does not psychoanalyze Smith, but he piles up enough evidence to balance some of his subject’s own overdramatic readings of himself. The crucial figure in his life—according to most witnesses—was his mother, who acted as booster, girl Friday (she often carried his equipment when he went on assignment), and indomitable totem of the American prairie. She lived with him for almost ten years after he had married Carmen Martinez, ruining any chance they had for normal family life. But it was his mother who put a camera back in Smith’s hands after his near-fatal war wound had killed any desire for photography. She effectively forced him to take pictures again.
Smith’s fame rests on the more than fifty photo-essays he undertook between 1948 and 1972, after his recovery. In stories such as “Country Doctor,” “Life Without Germs,” “Spanish Village,” “Nurse Midwife,” “Labyrinthian Walk” (a Piranesian view of Pittsburgh), and “Minamata” (on the gruesome effects of chemical wastes on a Japanese fishing village), he produced outstanding pictures that also made sense in sequence.
Still photographs, even in sequence, do not tell stories well. Smith thought hard about how to solve this problem, and how to talk about success when a photo essay approached it. The notes and rests of a musical line became his favorite analogy for the way that an array of photos can create momentum across the pages of a magazine or book. “Country Doctor” and “Nurse Midwife” are perhaps the best examples of this from Smith’s own work, because each documents a task from beginning to end. The protagonists of these essays are portrayed as ordinary, their jobs routine, yet at the same time Smith shows that to go about your business in remote locales requires heroic resolve.
Smith was a better photographer than Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstadt, and Robert Capa, colleagues at Life who lacked his deeply self-critical approach. He never openly courted money or celebrity, retreating instead to his Sixth Avenue loft to brood on his theories. He could also be unbearably self-righteous. After years of stormy, tearful fights with Life, he left the magazine in the Fifties rather than submit to control of his layouts. His resignation letter became a performance piece he would read to his students at the New School for Social Research—his lesson in integrity. There is no question that Life always played it safe and middlebrow. But Smith was impossibly demanding, personally as well as professionally, and, in his search for purity, he somewhere along the way managed to abandon his wife and children.
Despite his courageous aims for photography, Smith’s reliance on melodramatic lighting and his penchant for seeking out recognizable “types” usually casts his work in a sentimentally humanist mold, much closer to Life’s idea of itself than he liked to think. The characters in his pictures act out a drama that he understands, even if they remain unaware of the larger significance he wants to bring to their lives. They’re prisoners of his “vision,” denied a lively freedom of their own.
Smith’s work was intended to be uplifting.
Smith’s work was intended to be uplifting; at its worst it was also condescending. Hughes has a funny description of Smith photographing Albert Schweitzer in Africa. The doctor had been a hero of Smith’s until the two butted heads over the issue of artistic control. Schweitzer wanted only posed shots, afraid that he might be caught looking less than kindly toward the patients in his care. As Hughes implies, both men were caught up in myths about themselves. Smith went away crushed and disillusioned about the great healer and fellow Bach devotee.
By the late Sixties Smith was out-of-step with the new documentary style of Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. “He represented what we wanted to get away from,” Friedlander has said. It’s a shock to realize that Smith was only five years older than Diane Arbus, six years older than Robert Frank. His style looks decades older than theirs.
The meaning of Smith’s photographs could be grasped instantly by anyone. It was usually clear why they were taken. Steichen used four of Smith’s pictures in his “Family of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. For the concluding image of the show, and of the best-selling book based on it, Steichen chose The Walk to Paradise Garden, Smith’s 1946 image of his two children walking into the light, probably the most famous (and mawkish) photograph of his career. Through posters and greeting cards it has become an American icon. Hughes documents that it also had healing power for Smith, recovering from his psychic shattering during the war.
By the end of his life Smith had become a legend, his mystique enhanced through inactivity; his absence from the magazines was explained by talk that he was now devoting himself to his “Big Book,” a “total statement” on his life in photography, never completed. His 1969 retrospective at the Jewish Museum was immense and chaotic; the nearly six hundred prints—installed by Smith and his band of assistants only hours before the opening and mounted every which way on the walls—made up probably the largest one-man show ever devoted to a photographer in the U.S.
Smith’s work didn't really fit into the popular magazines or the museums in his later years; it was too extravagant for the former, not daring enough for the latter. By the time of his death in 1978, a photography market existed with galleries mounting regular exhibitions. But Smith would give up only a few prints to his dealer Lee Witkin. Hughes does a good job at showing how Smith’s need for control governed every aspect of his life and career, usually to his detriment.
As he grew older, Smith asked more of photography than ever before. It had to make a humanistic statement; it couldn’t just present the facts. He had a motto that defied modernism’s claims of formal disinterest: “Facts just do not tell truth without poetry and drama? He scorned the idea of objectivity, contrasting it with what he called “honesty.” Were he more concerned with the process of exposing the hidden agenda within supposedly neutral pictures, his work would vibrate to the Zeitgeist of the late Eighties, as political art has staged a comeback.
The heroic statue of Smith, created by himself and his admirers, has long needed a more realistic base. This book provides one without trashing Smith’s life. Hughes has a pained, exasperated respect for this self-made American artist. Smith’s hard-won answers to the problems of photojournalism—a shaky and compromised endeavor—have inspired numerous contemporaries, from Mary Ellen Mark to James Nachtwey. Smith felt the pressure, as few photographers do, to take great pictures all the time. This biography spells out in dramatic fashion the romantic energy that can go into this mechanical art. If Smith often tripped himself up, he did so not out of laziness or cynicism but by putting more weight on photography than either he or it could bear.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 4, on page 73
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