W. Eugene Smith Biography: The Early Years

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The Camera Makes the Man

The legendary photojournalist W. Eugene Smith left an indelible mark on both the nature of his craft and virtually anyone who ever viewed his works. He lived from 1918 to 1960, quite an eventful time-period in history relatively speaking. He was born in Wichita, Kansas, and from the early age of 13 he was interested in photography which he learned from the enthusiastic tutelage of his mother, Nettie. Smith through himself full bore into trying to master every aspect of photography. By the age of 21 he was already published in dozens of magazines. In high school he took pictures for newspapers in the Wichita area and was so accomplished in his craft that the College of Notre Dame created a special scholarship just for him in 1936. The terrible fallout from the Dust Bowl, aviation, and sports were mainly the subjects he captured in the beginning before launching his entire being into blazing a new path and standard in photojournalism. The plight of the human condition he witnessed in his youth, characterized by the terrible consequences of the depression and the Dust Bowl, left an indelible mark on him and his later work.

His Early Career

Despite photographer Eugene Smith’s initial success and the fact that he realized he had an intuitively gifted eye, Smith denounced his early work, saying that poor technique and lacked interpretive insight to the event or subject he had tried to capture. He felt that he failed in communicating the depth of feeling he himself experienced while shooting something. Therefore he destroyed most of his early works which demonstrated his strive toward uncompromising perfection apparent for ever after. When he was moved, he wanted his audience to experience that very same poignancy through his work. Since many believe he was one of the best photojournalists the world has ever seen, he didn’t miss that mark. Smith was obstinate about not letting anyone compromise the integrity of his photo essays. He left Notre Dame after only a year because he said they were making “hackneyed” demands regarding the nature of his work.

This trend continued throughout his life. He was fired from a promising career at Newsweek for disobeying direct instructions to not use the miniature camera he insisted upon using. After that he began freelancing for the likes of Colliers, Life, the New York Times, and the other famous periodicals that were on newsstands everywhere in the late 1930s. Later, it seemed he moved away from that philosophy since while on the job he was often seen with six or seven cameras dangling from his neck. Even so, for much of his work he used a 35mm. Ever the self-critical artist, W. Eugene Smith characterized his work during this period as “overly clever and with too much technique” and also felt they lacked a depth of feeling. Yet his work garnered much praise and appreciation.

Influences from his Harrowing Experiences on the Front Lines of World War II

W. Eugene Smith was a very brave man and sacrificed his life for the sake of his art. As a war correspondent, he ended up in the Pacific theatre, where brutal and bloody island fighting took the lives of countless men. Through his work, he endeavored to convey the horror of war in a socially conscious manner. He was on 26 combat missions and D-Day on Okinawa. His stunning work is available to see at life.com. While on the coast there photographing a series he called “A Day in the Life of a Front Line Soldier,” he was severely wounded by Japanese artillery. He was waylaid in a hospital for two grueling years of convalescence as a result.

During that period of recovery, he took a painful walk with his two children and despite the pain he endured to manipulate a camera, he created one of the most famous photographs ever taken, “A Walk to Paradise Garden.” In this black and white classic, his two children are walking with their backs to the camera, perfectly framed in the foliage surrounding the path, walking from darkness into light. If you’re not moved by this poignant image, have your heart checked to make sure someone hasn’t replaced it with a black stone. By the way, the photograph where a gleeful Harry Truman is holding up a newspaper erroneously announcing that Dewey defeated him in the Presidential election is also the work of the photographer Eugene Smith.

The Rest of the Story

Continuing with his on-again, off-again relationship with Life, Smith created epoch photo essays as the result of obsessively immersing himself into his subject matters. This wasn’t the standard in photojournalism, but since he went against the grade and coveted the sanctity of his art over job security, he did things his way. In a photo essay for Life dubbed “Nurse Midwife," Smith captured the essence of a black woman working in the harsh and poor conditions of the rural south. The work was an evocative portrait about racism that created empathy in readers nationwide. Much like the famous landscape photographers that helped us see the world in a different way; W. Eugene Smith’s portraits elicited an evocative response from the people that inhabit it.

As an independent freelancer in 1956, he poured himself into monolithic study of life in Pittsburg, taking over ten thousand photographs and paring it down to 50 when it came time to finally publish it. In a way, it was a break from his career in photojournalism and an avenue to get closer to his artistic roots. Unfortunately for his wife and family, he was too obsessive about his work. Unable to balance both work and family, he chose to leave them and pursue his art in his late fifties. Ironically, throughout his career, Smith endeavored to get in really close to his subjects to capture that raw emotion making him somewhat of a pioneer in that technique. Perhaps that same attention wasn’t demonstrated in his home. In 1970, his “Let Truth Be the Prejudice” was displayed at the Jewish Museum in New York brought him even greater acclaim as a socially conscious artist dedicated to his ideals. His life enabled people to become aware and appreciate events and people in unprecedented ways.