W. Eugene Smith led a troubled but eventful life and his groundbreaking photo essays have inspired generations of photojournalists, David Clark writes about W. Eugene Smith's life and work 1918-1978

William Eugene Smith led a troubled but eventful life and his groundbreaking photo essays have inspired generations of photojournalists writes David Clark

Steelworker: taken in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1955. Smith?s photo essay on Pittsburgh was due to be completed in three weeks, but took three years.©Magnum Collection/Magnum Photos

The American photographer W Eugene Smith is widely regarded as one of the most passionate, driven and uncompromising photojournalists of the 20th century. He pioneered the photo essay and depicted, in his most famous work, the victims of war and industrial pollution. However, his manic depression, his obsessive dedication to his work and his self-destructive nature led to a stormy career and personal life.

Smith was born in Wichita, Kansas, and had his first pictures published in local newspapers. When he was 17 years old, his father committed suicide. This traumatic event affected him both personally and professionally, as the distorted newspaper accounts that followed his father?s death made him determined to pursue the highest standards of truth and honesty in his own work.

After studying photography at the University of Indiana, he became a staff photographer at Newsweek in 1938. However, he was soon fired for insisting on using a ?miniature? camera for his work. Next, he joined the staff of Life magazine, but resigned in 1941. In 1942, he began working as a freelance war correspondent and covered the American campaign in the Pacific.

He set out patriotically supporting the US war effort, but his experiences in the battlefield turned him against the war. He later said (in the book W Eugene Smith: His Photographs and Notes) that he hoped his pictures would not be ?the coverage of a news event, but an indictment of war ? the brutal corrupting viciousness of its doing to the minds and bodies of men.? He aimed that his work ?might be a powerful emotional catalyst to the reasoning which would help this vile and criminal stupidity from beginning again.?

Smith photographed bombing raids and battles with brutal directness, before being hit by a shell fragment that tore through his left hand and face during the battle of Okinawa in 1945. He spent the next two years recovering and was unable to work. One of the first photographs he shot after resuming photography was a picture of his two children walking through the forest together. He called it ?The Walk to Paradise Garden? and, although perhaps one of his most sentimental pictures, it also became one of his most famous.

He returned to work for Life from 1947 until 1954, where, despite having fraught relationships with the magazine?s editors, he produced a series of groundbreaking photo essays. These included Man of Mercy (1954), which documented Dr Albert Schweitzer?s work with lepers in Africa.

In 1950, he was sent to the UK to cover the general election, but just a few of his photographs of working-class Britain were published. Smith was particularly unhappy with the way the latter essay was edited and presented in Life and he resigned from the magazine. He joined the Magnum agency the following year and began a photo essay on the industrial city of Pittsburgh, which was to be published as a book. The project was due to be completed in around three weeks.

He worked intensively in the city during several periods over the next three years. In all, he shot around 22,000 negatives, pouring his own money into the project while being extensively subsidised by Magnum. The project exhausted Smith and he became increasingly dependent on alcohol and amphetamines. His marriage ended during this period. He also accrued huge debts with Magnum and was declared bankrupt. Around 60 of the images were eventually published in a book in 1964, but the presentation of the pictures never approached Smith?s grand vision.

In the following years, Smith?s career faltered. His main project (1957-65) was documenting the work of jazz musicians in the Manhattan loft where he lived after leaving his family. He shot more than 40,000 photographs and made over 4,000 hours of recordings.

In 1971, Smith moved to Japan to live with his second wife, Aileen, and stayed for two years. Here he began what was to become his final great photo essay: an investigation into the effects of industrial pollution in the fishing village of Minamata, where the Chisso Corporation?s chemical factory had for many years been illegally dumping mercury into the ocean.

Smith?s photographs brought this to the world?s attention and these images form one of his most highly regarded bodies of work. However, during a demonstration at the Chisso factory in 1972, Smith and his wife were attacked by thugs employed by Chisso, Smith was badly beaten and almost lost his eyesight during the attack.

In 1978, Smith moved his photo archive to the University of Arizona and agreed to teach there. Soon after, however, his health deteriorated following a series of strokes and he died later that year. His personal fortune had declined to the extent that, when he died, he had just $18 in the bank.

Two years year later, a Memorial Fund was established in Smith?s name, with the aim of seeking out and encouraging independent voices in photography. The W Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography has since been awarded annually and recipients have included Sebastião Salgado (1982) and Eugene Richards (1981).

Through his passion for photography and his extensive body of work, Smith has continued to provide inspiration to subsequent generations of photographers. Although his work led to much unhappiness and frustration in his life, Smith felt it was simply something he was driven to do. ?I am a compassionate cynic,? he wrote, ?yet I believe I am one of the most affirmative photographers around. I have tried to let the truth be my prejudice. It has taken much sweat. It has been worth it.?

Biography

  • 1918 William Eugene Smith is born on 30 December in Wichita, Kansas, USA
  • 1935 Begins working as a freelance press photographer
  • 1937 Begins working for Newsweek, but is fired for refusing to use medium-format cameras
  • 1939 Becomes a photographer for Life magazine, but resigns after two years
  • 1943-44 Works as a freelance war correspondent and photographs Pacific War battles
  • 1947-55 Returns to work for Life magazine
  • 1955 Joins the Magnum agency and begins his Pittsburgh project
  • 1957-65 Photographs and makes recordings of jazz musicians in a Manhattan loft
  • 1972 Attacked and badly injured by Chisso employees and his sight deteriorates
  • 1978 Moves to Tucson to teach at the University of Arizona
  • 1978 Dies on 15 October, aged 59, following a stroke

Books and Websites

Books: A good general overview of Smith?s work can be found in W Eugene Smith (part of the Phaidon 55s series). There are also books on his individual projects, such as Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith?s Pittsburgh Project 1955-1958 (WW Norton & Co) and The Jazz Loft Project (Knopf Publishing).

Websites: A good selection of Smith?s work for Magnum, including selections from photo essays such as the Pittsburgh project, can be seen on www.magnumphotos.com. The W Eugene Smith Memorial Fund website is at www.smithfund.org.

For a full copy of the feature with further images please contact our editorial department on 020 3148 4138 for a back issue dated 4 September 2010