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W. Eugene Smith

"World’s Greatest" Photojournalist?


Over the years W. Eugene Smith often irritated those for whom he worked, not because he was lazy or incompetent, but because of his refusal to compromise his integrity in each and every image he captured.  W. Eugene Smith did not care if it was Time or Life magazine, he would easily walk away if he felt they impeded the quality of what he produced.

In the Beginning

William Eugene Smith was born in 1918 in Wichita, Kansas.  His interest in aeronautical engineering led him to borrow a camera from his mom, so that he could take photos at the local airport.  Surprisingly, his love of planes suddenly took second place to his love of photography.  Throughout his years in high school, Smith worked with local newspapers taking photographs.  He still loved planes, so many of the images he created were of planes, but he soon found an equal interest in sports and current events.  Being the perfectionist that he was, none of these images remain today since he destroyed them, feeling that they were not up to the standard of which he was capable.

A Special College Scholarship

Smith’s talents did not go unrecognized.  In 1936, at the age of 18, he entered Notre Dame University and shortly thereafter the faculty and administration created a special photographic scholarship for him in recognition of his talents.  Smith left the University a year later due to unfair demands that were made of him. 

A Career Begins

Smith moved to New York and joined the staff of Newsweek, but within one year he was fired due to his refusal to work in the format they preferred. Smith soon learned to work with a variety of cameras, although he grew to prefer the 35 mm format and could often be seen with as many as seven around his neck at once. 

His dismissal from Newsweek did not deter him from a career for which he was destined.  He continued chronicling some of the most important events in history and working as a freelancer for The New York Times, Life, American, Colliers and various other top notch publications.  

A Wartime Change

The next period of his photographic career was determined by the course of history.  In 1942 he became a war correspondent for Ziff-Davis, and then for Life.  Always one to be in the middle of things, Smith spent much of his time in the Pacific chronicling the bloody battles taking place.  Smith was involved in 26 carrier combat missions and 13 invasions.  He was in Okinawa on D-Day and even hitch-hiked twelve hundred miles to Guam to be certain that the film in his possession would be delivered to Life in the quickest possible fashion.  Dropping off the film he jumped on the first available plane and went back to the center of action to take more photos.

A Career Altering Injury

His luck ran out on a day in May in 1945.  Smith was in Okinawa working on an essay entitled “A Day in the Life of a Front Line Soldier.” Smith was seriously wounded by a Japanese shell fragment which passed through his left hand before entering his check just below the eye.  In his usual lighthearted style, Smith joked in the hospital, "I forgot to duck but I got a wonderful shot of those who did... my policy of standing up when the others are down finally caught up with me."

It would be two years before Smith would return to his photography career.  During this time it was doubtful if he would be able to take photos again.  Taking photos were intensely painful, but he gave it a try during a walk through the woods with his two young children.  This picture would end up being one of his most memorable.  It was entitled “A Walk to Paradise Garden.”  This image would end up as the final photograph in the famous “Family of Man” Exhibition.

Bouncing back from his injury in unbeatable style, Smith would produce some of his greatest photo-essays for Life Magazine.  These essays would forever set the bar for great photojournalistic works of art. It would be his Man of Mercy essay which would once again cause a disagreement with Life Magazine in 1955, which resulted in him tendering his resignation. 

On His Own

After leaving Life, Smith signed on with Magnum photo agency in 1955 and started several new projects.  Smith’s most ambitious photo essay would be one on the City of Pittsburgh. This essay was largely self-financed except for a Guggenheim Fellowship that he received in 1956-1957.  This project was supposed to last three weeks, but instead it spanned three years, and was ultimately too large to be shown. 

A second essay, of photos taken from the window of his New York loft would be published in Life under the title Drama Beneath a Window

In December 1971, Smith took what are often referred to as his most poignant photographs.  They were of a young girl who was a victim of Minamata disease.  The work entitled Omoko Uemura in Her Bath drew worldwide attention to this disease which was caused by a Chisso factory that had discharged heavy metals into water sources around Minamata. Smith was attacked by workers at the factory, who feared that the photos would result in the shutting down of the factory and disruption to their livelihood.  Although Smith survived the attack his sight was affected.

In later years Smith taught Photography at New York’s New School for Social Research and held the position of President of the American Society of Magazine Photographers

A Sad Ending 

In 1978 Smith died from a massive stroke, due to complications from his long term consumption of drugs and alcohol, which it is believed he utilized to feed his workaholic tendencies.  When he died he had $18.00 in the bank, but a wealth of images which would live on forever.  He may have never received the acclaim he desired, but he will forever be regarded as one of the greatest photojournalists ever.  His name and reputation are, and will forever be, priceless. 


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