W. Eugene Smith

An American photojournalist born in 1918 in Kansas. Straight from graduating high school in 1936 he started his career taking photographs for two local newspapers before he eventually moved to New York City in search of the bigger opportunities which he was successful in by joint Newsweek until he wa
s fired for refusing to use medium format cameras. He left there and joined Life Magazine in 1939.

During the Second World War he was a correspondent for Ziff-Davis Publishing and Life Magazine and spent most of his time on the front lines in the Pacific. He joined the American forces during their island hopping offensive in which saw Smith photographing both US soldiers and Japanese prisoners of war at Guam, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa and it was at the later that he was hit my mortar fire which injured him for the rest of the war. He stayed with Life after his recovery until 1954 where one of his final assignments was to photograph the 1950 General Election in the United Kingdom. Although Life Magazine had taken an editorial stance against the Labour government only a limited number of his images were published, these were mainly of working class British people while some, taken in Wales were used by the BBC for a documentary.

Upon leaving Life Magazine in 1954 he joined the Magnum Photo Agency in 1955 and began a project to document the city of Pittsburgh. Although planned to take three weeks it ended up spanning three years and was only shown through a series of book length photo essays.

smith_pittsburgh_steel

Included was this photograph taken at a Pittsburgh steel works. Although very grainy and unfocused this gives a strong feeling of heat, poor visibility and the danger of such environment. The image itself is a beautifully composed photograph with the two figures int he foreground balancing the dark crane in the back right. The taller person closest to the camera seems to be looking back over his shoulder, perhaps at the other man or at the crane but this decisive moment helps the image by showing the mans concern, his awareness of those around him further cements the feeling of danger. I love the atmosphere captured here. The fire and darkness create a vivid tonal range that really grabs the attention and builds the connection with the viewer.

After his time in Pittsburgh Smith worked in Manhatten photographing the jazz musicians of the day in a loft space. He created 40,000 photographs coupled with 4000 hours of recordings from 1957 to 1965 and since his death in 1978 they have all been archived and documented in an attempt to build an insight into the jazz community of Manhattan.

In 1972 W. Eugene Smith lived and worked in Minamata in Japan, he was attempting to show the effects of the Minamata disease to the world through press channels, it was at this time he was attacked by local employees of a chemical processing company who had caused the disease due to pollution because of his highly regarded and photo-essay of which Smith had become a master in showing the effects the diseases had on the local people. The beating was severe resulting in the deterioration of sight in one eye.

It was at this time that Smith produced one of his most highly regarded photographs, ‘ Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath’ which was taken in december 1971 and published in 72 after the attack on Smith captured world wide attention and interest into the Minamata disease. The image shows Tomoko’s mother cradling her severely deformed daughter in a Japanese bathing chamber. The deliberate pose captured an intimate moment that was used to illustrate the effects of the disease. This single image raised the international profile of the disaster and helped the victims and families receive justice and compensation.

W. Eugene Smith died in 1978 of a stroke leaving a legacy of a master of the photo-essay. His work documenting the American cities, musicians, politics and industrial disasters has taught people and myself on the importance of the photo-essay, the narrative that can grab the viewer, change opinions, and raise awareness.

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