W. Eugene Smith – A Complicated Life


May 7, 2010 by Rob Cook

Note: This is a paper I wrote for a photo history class I took at Utah State University. It is with Eugene Smith and this class that my interest in and love for photographic history was born.

“Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them, can lure our senses to awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought. Someone – or perhaps many – among us head to reason, to find a way to right that which is wrong, and may even search for a cure to an illness. the rest of us may even fell a greater sense of understanding and compassion for those whose lives are alien to our own. Photography is a small voice. I believe in it. If it is well conceived it sometimes works.”

William Eugene Smith was born on December 30, 1918, in Wichita, Kansas. His mother was a photographer and his father was a businessman working in the Wichita area.

Smith’s work in photography began at age 14 photographing airplanes at the airport in Wichita. Photography soon became his main interest. He was given early encouragement and advice from Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Frank Noel. At age 18 Smith started working for the Wichita Eagle and Beacon, local newspapers in Wichita. While working for these newspapers Smith started photographing the environmental devastation during the dust bowl. About his early work Smith said, “The dust bowl photography, as people called it, matured me very early in life. I was really photographing the destruction of my own family as well as the destruction of an entire area.” Smith later burned all of his early images because they were inadequate in describing what he felt as he watched the destruction. Smith later wrote: “I had an intuitive sense of timing, an

impossibly poor technique, an excitement to the fact of the event rather then of interpretive insight. Although I was deeply moved I did not have the power to communicate it.” Being able to express his feelings, for Smith, was very important, It gave nobility to his photographs of ordinary things.

In 1936 Smith’s father committed suicide and the sensational­ism of the local newspaper’s coverage of his death caused Smith to bitterly hate dishonest journalism. Smith almost decided to quit journalism, but a friend convinced him that, “honesty is not of a profession, but within the individual and what he brings to his work.”

At age 19 Smith began his studies at Notre Dame University on a special scholarship created for him. After one semester Smith left school and moved to New York City and began working for Newsweek Magazine. Smith was fired from Newsweek for using a small format camera. About his work at Newsweek Smith said, “It was lucky that they fired me because then I started working for Life.”  Smith spent three years at Life doing ordinary mundane assignments. During this time Smith discovered the world of music. Smith started a record collection that in time grew to over 25,000 records. Smith once said, “I learned much more from music, literature, the stag

e, and the other arts, then I ever learned from photography . . . .  I picked up timing and a sense of drama, and also how to relate pictures together.”

During this time Smith was married to Carmen Martinez and a year later they had their first child, Marissa.

In 1942 Smith resigned his contract with Life Magazine and free-lanced in the New York area for awhile.  During this time Smith was injured while shooting an assignment for Parade Magazine. About this time Smith became interested in World War II, but his injury left Smith physically disqualified from service in the war. Smith applied for service in Edward Stiechen’s Naval Photographic unit but was turned down three times for physical reasons. Smith then joined the staff of Ziff-Davis Publishing Company and was assigned to the aircraft carriers Independence and Bunker Hill. During this time Smith photographed battles on Wake Island, Rabual, Tarawa, Naru Island, Kavieng, and the Mariana Islands. Smith then returned home to New York for leave and resigned his contract with Ziff-Davis.

Smith again joined the staff of Life magazine in May 1944, and returned to the Pacific to continue his work. During his work for Life Smith photographed the invasions of Saipan, Guam, and Okinawa. On Okinawa Smith was severely wounded in the head, chest, and back by shell fire. He was evacuated to Guam and in June returned to New York to continue his recovery. Smith later said of his work in the Pacific: “I would that my photographs might 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; and, that my photographs might be a powerful emotional catalyst to the reasoning which would help this vile and criminal stupidity from beginning again.”  “Each time I pressed the shutter release it was a shouted condemnation of war.”  Smith had an idealistic hope that some how his photographs would help prevent future wars.

After two years of medical treatment and painful recovery Smith exposed his first negative. It was an image of his two children walking through a garden, called “The Walk to Paradise Garden.”  About this image that concluded Edward Steichens “The Family of Man” exhibition, Smith wrote: “The children in the photograph are my children, and on the day I made this photographic effort, I was not sure I would be capable of ever photographing again . . . . But now this day I would endeavor to refute two years of negation. On this day, for the first time since my injuries, I would   try again to make the camera work for me. I would try to force my body to control the mechanics of the camera; and, as well, I would try to command my creative spirit out of exile.

“Urgently, something compelled that this first photograph must not be a failure – pray God that I could so much as physically force a roll of film into the camera!  I was determined that this first pho­tograph must sing of more than

being a technical accomplish­ment. I was determined that it would speak of a gentle moment of spirited purity in contrast to the depraved savagery I had raged against with my war photographs – my last photographs. I was almost desperate in this determination, in my insistence that for some reason this first exposure must have a special quality.  I have never quite understood why it had to be thus, why it had to be the first and not the second; why, if not accomplished today, it could not be accomplished the next week; yet that day I challenged myself to do it, against my nerves, against my reason . . . .  What ever the reason,  probably more complex then one – I felt, without labeling it as such, that it was to be a day of spiritual decision . . . .

“Still, and regardless of the conflict that raged within me, there was no change in my determination, and of my intentions for that first photograph. These woods with these children prancing in through them in happiness . . . as against war photographs I had made of a terrified mother and her child wheeling in bewilderment behind a shell broken tree . . . . ”

In 1947 Smith returned to Life Magazine, and had to prove his ability to photograph again. Between the years of 1947 – 1957 Smith photographed many photo essays for Life. These included, “Folk Singers” (1947), “Trial by Jury” (1948), “Country  Doctor” (1948), “Hard Times on Broadway” (1949), “Life Without Germs” (1949), “Recording Artist” (1951), “Spanish Village” (1951), “Nurse Mid­wife” (1951), “Chaplin at Work” (1952), “The Reign of Chemistry” (1953), “My Daughter Juanita” (1953), and “A Man of Mercy” (1954).

Among these photo essays is some of Smith’s most influential and important work. When talking about Smith’s desire to somehow change the world through his work, three of these essays stand above the rest –  “Country Doctor”, “Spanish Village”, and “Nurse Midwife”. Through these series of photographs Smith gained even greater fame and was able to raise the conscious level of the world.

The “Spanish Village” essay showed Smiths hatred for un-fair rule. Smith went to Spain to “try and show what living is like under the heel and police of a dictator.”  Talking about the death scene in the “Spanish Village” essay Smith said: “In the death scene in the “Spanish Village,” I did not want to intrude into the morning scene. But as the picture came about, the day before I had been quite ill with an upset stomach in the field just at the edge of the village. A man offered me some wine, which I didn’t want but I drank it anyway just because of the gesture of kindness. Then the next day he came to me and said his father had died that night. He had gangrene and they wanted to bury him as quickly as possible, so he asked me if I could take him to the county seat so he could get the necessary papers registered. When we came back, he went to his house. I could see into the house, it was a very moving scene that was happening in the back of the room, but I could not bring myself to go in, just walk in; I just couldn’t do it. I paced back and forth outside storming at myself because I knew it was an important picture, and it was important to the whole story. But yet I did not feel I had the right to intrude, and I knew that a great number of photographers would have just gone in. Whether they would have come out with a great picture I don’t know, because they probably would have disturbed the people in there. Well, I stayed outside for awhile. Then I saw the son of the man come to the door, and I suddenly went up to him and said, ‘sir, I do not wish to dishonor your father, but would it be permissible for me to enter your house and to photograph?’ and he said, ‘please come in, I would be honored.’ So I went in with one assistant. The only light in there was a candle about three feet over his head, and with all that black they were wearing, it was very difficult. But I wanted to hold the same mood of lighting, so it was one of the few times I used a flashbulb. I took the reflector off and just used the bare bulb. By hand signals alone I motioned my assistant to work his way around behind the people to a position where he could hold the bulb over the candle so that it would simulate the candle lighting. I made one exposure and immediately realized that it was not good, that the picture was all out of rhythm. I made one more and thought I had at least a good picture. I would have loved to have stayed there and photographed a couple of rolls, but then I saw the son standing in the doorway peering in. I again motioned without words for my assistant to go through the other doorway so that the mourners in the other room and the son in the doorway could be seen, made one more exposure, and then very reluctantly I left. All this time never having said a word, hoping I never created much of a disturbance.”

In 1955 Smith once again resigned from Life magazine because of a dispute over the “A Man of Mercy” essay. About Life magazine Smith wrote, ” My attitude was almost always friendly towards Life; in spite of all their faults and failures they were a great magazine; otherwise it would not have been worth the fight. The resignation over the Schweitzer essay – it was a battle over the right of responsibility for my reportage, I was never bluntly saying they could never run a story of mine and distort it, and I resigned trying to force them to work out the problems about the story . . . . All the resignations were for the purposes of trying to help me gain the quality in the magazine I felt was my responsibility as a journalist. And I take that responsibility very seriously.’

After his second resignation from Life, Smith joined Magnum Photos. While employed with Magnum Photos Smith began his most ambitious essay. It was a photo study of the city of Pitts­burgh.  Photo historian William S Johnson, wrote about the Pittsburgh essay: Feeling that he must vindicate himself, and driven by the desire to prove his ideas about the full possibilities of the photographic essay, Smith turned a simple project to do some  illustrations for a book about Pittsburgh into a huge three-year-long project. The Pittsburgh essay, composed of thousands of photographs, was an astonishing act of creative energy and talent. In every other way it was a disaster for Smith. During those years he drove himself into financial bankruptcy and physical and emotional breakdowns in his obsessive urge to complete the story as he wished.”  Smith personally financed the project in the beginning but later received two grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to help him finish it.

About this time Smith began his first major work in color. He was commissioned by the American Institute of Architects to do ten 18 foot long transparencies of contemporary American architec­ture. This project was entitled “Ten Buildings in America’s Future.”

By the end of the 1950s Smith’s reputation was higher then ever, but his family life was in chaos. In 1957 Smith divorced his wife and moved into a loft on Sixth Avenue in New York City. During the next several years Smith photographed the seasonal changes and events that happened outside his window. Out of this work came his “As From My Window I Sometimes Glance”, and “The Loft From Inside In” essays.

In 1959, part of the “As From My Window I Sometimes Glance” essay was published in Life Magazine under the name “Drama Beneath a City Window” was selected by the United States Information Agency for publication and distribution to Russia. Without Smith’s knowledge or consent the U.S.I.A. airbrushed out a police car that was in one of the photographs.

During this time Smith was recognized as one of the worlds 10 greatest photographers by an international poll conducted by Popular Photography Magazine. Also about this time Smith began an essay on a Haitian Mental Clinic. The essay was finished, but never published in its entirety.

In 1958 Smith began work on a book that would cover his life’s work. The book was titled “The Walk To Paradise Garden”. About this book Smith said, “This is a statement of my philosophies and dis­criminations . . . letting truth be my prejudice . . . dedicated to those not taking the past in proof against the future.”  The dummy for the book was finished in 1961.

In the early 1960s Smith exhibited his work all over the country and began teaching private classes in photojournalism.

In 1961 Smith was commissioned by the Japanese manufac­turing company, Hitachi Limited, to photograph its operations. Over the next year Smith had several portfolios published in Japanese magazines. Smith also worked on a book that Hitachi was to produce. In 1962 Smith returned to New York.

During 1963 – 1964 Smith published an essay in Life Magazine on his work done for Hitachi called “Colossus of the Orient”. The book produced by Hitachi was also published under the title, “A Chapter of Image.”

In 1964 Smith was appointed to the Presidents Committee on Photography.

In 1965 Smith worked on the development of the magazine Sensorium with Carol Thomas, his assistant over the past seven years. The project was later unpublished because of lack of financial backing.

During the later end of the 1960s Smith wrote and taught about photography. He did not produce any work that matched his previous accomplishments, but he did do some smaller projects on Woodstock, a small town in Ohio, a trip across the United States, and demonstrations against the Vietnam war.

In 1971 Smith and his new Japanese/American wife, Aileen, moved back to Japan to begin his final and probably greatest work, “Minamata”.  Smith and his wife moved to a small Japanese fishing village called Minamata. The people of the village were suffering from a strange disease later named, Minamata disease. This disease was proved to be coming from a local chemical company who was dumping mercury into the bay by the village. Smith and his wife spent four years in the village documenting the struggle by the disease victims to gain compensation from the chemical company for their destroyed lives. Smith and his wife, who was also a photographer, created many articles, essays, and traveling exhibitions that showed the struggle of the victims. In 1975 Smith and his wife published the book, Minamata . An overview of their work in Minamata. This book had a world – wide impact on the public awareness of this disease and pollution.

During the coverage of a press conference dealing with the disease Smith was beat up by the chemical company’s guards and severely injured. This only helped to gain even more sympathy for the victims of the disease. Of the many photographs shot in Minamata, one special photograph of a mother and her child became the symbolic photograph of their work. It also has become one of Smith’s best known images.  This photograph has been called the Pieta of the 20th Century. Shelly Rice in her article “W. Eugene Smith, A Dream of Life” wrote about this photograph: “The only light shines on the mother and the child, whose deformed body is stretched horizontally as she lies, helpless in the tub. Yet in spite of Tomoko’s malformed limbs, in spite of the problems her condition has caused, her mother, seated vertically, holds her gently, intimately, as she looks at her with maternal tenderness. Life may have delt these two women an excruciatingly bad hand, and government and Chisso officials may have treated them with neglect and abuse, but the emotional bonds that link Tomoko and her mother, and their courage to live and love, have survived intact.”

Smith also wrote about the photograph: “As we photographed other things, things around her, and even the family, it grew in my mind that to me the symbol of Minamata was, finally, a picture of this woman and the child, Tomoko. One day I simply said to Aileen that if every thing is all right up there, and they are not too busy, let us try and make that symbolic picture. Now this does not in any way mean that I was posing the picture in the sense of posing a picture. It meant that I was interpreting what by now I knew full well to be true, because I would never have done it otherwise. So we went there and sat; and we talked for awhile; and, I actually explained what kind of a picture – I didn’t explain that I wanted that look, that look of courage – I simply said that I wanted something of the caring for Tomoko. I thought maybe away from the bath would be the picture that would best show what had happened to Tomoko’s body. We started, the mother herself suggested that the photograph should be in the bath; so we decided to try that. The mother went through her ordinary bath routine with the child, and this was the result.”

After Minamata, Smith and his wife, Aileen divorced, and Smith returned to New York to begin two years of promotional appearances.

In 1977 Smith went to Tucson and began to teach photography at the University of Arizona, Still feeling the effects of his beating at Minamata, and a life of drug and alcohol abuse, Smith suffered a severe stroke. This began a year of painful recovery. During this time Smith began to organize his life’s work and planning his auto-biography. In the fall of 1978 Smith suffered a second stroke and died.

W. Eugene Smith’s philosophy about photography is best said by letting him say it. “I put so much passion and so much energy into the doing of my photographs that beyond photography for art’s sake, ‘art for art’s sake,’ or such, I much prefer to have my photographs add this other element, that possibly they will stir someone to action, to do something about something. I would like to make clear at the very beginning that I have no conflict between journalism and my artist self. At one time I did, but then I realized to be a good journalist I needed to be the finest artist I could possibly be.

“As far as I am concerned, I just very quietly accept photogra­phy as an art. Some of the photographs I have taken have changed others’ lives, too, because I know from the history of my own work that at times through photographs I have been able to destroy a concentration camp; I have been able to build a clinic for a nurse midwife; I have in some measure been able to help a little fighting the disease of pollution and racism.

“I don’t feel all that dedicated. I just feel like a normal guy that too many people insist upon becoming a legend, but I feel humble and always on the threshold of knowing how to do my work.”

The reason I wanted to do this paper on W. Eugene Smith is because he is probably the photographer who has influenced me and my work the most. While studying Smith’s life and philosophy about photography I realized that photography has an unseen power beyond  recording an event and freezing life. Photography has the power to destroy as well as build the photographer. Smith was so dedicated to his work that photography, in a way, destroyed his life. When Smith died in 1978, he died like many other creative people. He died alone and without much money.

During most of Smith’s life he abused drugs and alcohol. Smith never denied the fact that he had these problems, but he always believed that they didn’t effect his performance behind the camera.

When I look at Smith’s work I don’t see a man who hated the  world and tried to escape from it by drinking and taking drugs. I see a man who hated the values of the world and tried to correct them. I think Smith understood people, but didn’t understand  how he as a person fit into the world.

Smith looked at himself as the defender of truth for the world. Smith’s essay on the nurse midwife, Maude Callen, is a great example of his desire to change the world.  At a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable to deal with blacks, Smith went to North Carolina and spent weeks getting to know this woman and became her friend. I think that Smith gained this woman’s trust and respect. His photographs show it. Through Smith’s photographs published in Life , $18,500 was donated by Life’s readers toward building a clinic for this woman.

This same scenario was repeated many times and with many different situations all over the world.

Smith’s photographs have a special quality that draw people to them. Technically I don’t think Smith was any better then other photographers of the time, but one quality that set Smith apart was his use of light and the quality of light that he consistently had in his photographs. Smith was a master of light and the electronic flash.

One very good example of Smiths use of light, is his photograph of the Spanish Civil Guards in his “Spanish Village” essay.  Smith hated these men, who to him represented everything that was bad in the world. One day they asked Smith to photograph them for his story, so he placed them facing into the sun so they would have to squint. The quality of the noon day sun gave the guards a harsh, evil look. Smith told the guards that the light made them look better.

There are two of Smith’s photographs that I enjoy the most. They cover an emotional range from good to bad.

The first is a photograph of a mental patient in Haiti.  The photograph shows just the head of a black mental patient against a black background. The patient’s white eyes jump out at you. The expression on the man’s face is that of a man in great pain. Smith’s use of hard contrasting light and the expression on the mans face helps one viewing the image to better understand the empty world of this man.

The second photograph is of a nun waiting for the survivors of the Andrea Doria.  There is nothing exceptional about the photograph itself, but to me this is the W. Eugene Smith image I enjoy the most. This picture is simply of a young nun against a dark background, but the striking quality of this photograph is not formed by dramatic lighting or incredible action. It is the expression on the nun’s face. It is an expression of concern and hope, but most of all it is a look of great faith in God. This to me is why I admire Smith’s work. He had the ability to evoke great expression from those he photographed.

The photograph of the spinner from the “Spanish Village”  essay has that Smithian quality of great expression. The image of Tomoko in the bath with her mother from the Minamata essay is another example of the expression Smith was able to see in his subjects. The expression of love on this mother’s face is striking.

W. Eugene Smith was surrounded all his life by people who cared for him and loved him. He spent his whole life trying to make the world a better place for others. After studying Smith’s life it is ironic to me that when Smith died, he died alone, apart from his family and doing something he probably didn’t enjoy as much as photographing-teaching. In a way photography destroyed itself and Smith.

Smith’s ashes were buried in upstate New York. Present at his funeral were his second wife, Aileen, all his children, his first wife, Carmen, and most of his 13 grandchildren. After Smith’s death a cable came signed by three men in Minamata:





1- W. Eugene Smith, Aileen Smith, Minamata, Publ. by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York, © 1975.

2- William S Johnson, W. Eugene Smith, Publ. by Pantheon Books © 1986, Translated from French.

3- Kenneth Kobre, Photojournalism The Professionals Approach, Publ. by Focal Press, Butterworth Publishers, Boston, © 1980, Pgs. 282 – 305.

4- Time – Life Books, Great Photographers 1983, Publ. by Time – Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, © 1983, Pg. 176.

5- Parry Janis, Wendy MacNeel, Photography Within the humanities, Publ. by Addison House, Danbury N. H., © 1977, Pgs. 96 – 109.

6- Aperture, W. Eugene Smith, Publ. by Aperture Inc., New York,         © 1969.

7- Shelly Rice, W. Eugene Smith: A Dream of Life,  Publ by Lens on Campus Magazine, part one, March 1986, Hearst Business Communica

tions, Inc., Garden City, New York, Pgs 14 – 17.

8- Shelly Rice, W. Eugene Smith: A Dream of Life,  Publ by Lens on Campus Magazine, part two, April 1986, Hearst Business Communica

tions, Inc., Garden City, New York, Pgs 10 – 13.

9- Aperture, Let Truth be Prejudice, Publ. by Aperture Inc., New York, © 1987.


10 thoughts on “W. Eugene Smith – A Complicated Life

  1. I have copy and pasted from your awesome article into my blog… if you have any objections whatsoever I will remove immediately…

    I have credited and given full reference to you and your site…

    William Eugene Smith is amazing… this is how I want my pictures to be!

    I doubt you will get too many “hits” from my site as I do this mostly just as a hobby and do not have a following… however, I felt it important to give credit where it’s due!

  2. […] fotograaf W. Eugene Smith die onlangs een tentoonstelling had in Foam maakte voor Life tussen 1971 en 1973 een serie […]

  3. William A. Shaffer says:

    I found your paper to be refreshing and inspiring—about a photographer whom I have considered to be one of the best in the world. Thank You for posting this on the internet. It is my hope that others who might not know who W. Eugene Smith was will become acquainted with his life’s work and legacy.

  4. Matt Bigwood says:

    Fantastic article. I’ve been a fan of the work of W Eugene Smith for many years. Great photos of the man at the start.

  5. […] The Facts: Eugene Smith was an ordinary photographer before the Second World War, handling routine assignments for Life, Newsweek, and Parade magazines. After Pearl Harbor, he tried to join Steichen’s Navy photography unit but was refused because of his small size and an injury that hampered his movement. Smith persevered and managed to contract with Ziff-Davis Publishing and was assigned to the Pacific. He photographed combat at Rabaul, Tarawa, and in the Marianas. After his contract with Ziff-Davis ended, he got Life magazine to send him back in time for the fighting on Saipan, Guam, and Okinawa. Smith’s father had committed suicide in 1936 and…: […]

  6. […] day before, Smith was allowed to visit the deathbed of the Spanish villager (the story is retold here). In that most private of spaces, he took photos. But he also went a step further, moving around […]

  7. dishank1996 says:

    A teacher telling me to see Smith’s pictures on minamata.. And then I read this just to become one more Smith fan! #respect

  8. […] W. Eugene Smith – A Complicated Life […]

  9. Zora says:

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  10. Andrea says:

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