Book Review: W. Eugene Smith

Great artist of great photojournalist? Both

I didn't realize until doing some research on Smith that he took that famous November 2, 1948 photo of Harry Truman holding up the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune with the erroneous headline: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. Oddly, though, it isn't included in the 352 photos in the book but a minor loss in this fascinating overview of Smith's life.

The five contributor essays merge into the photo sections of the book with Gilles Mora's the first with interesting revelations about Smith and his work. His obsession with how his photos were used in publications eventually made him leave Life magazine where he had worked for many years, completing 170 assignments, though not all published. The 1954 photo feature on doctor Schweitzer caused the break, probably because Life wanted to present the doctor as the humanitarian he was generally perceived to be while Smith photographed a controlling and authoritarian medical personality. Life's twelve page photo essay of Schweitzer appears in the book with three other of Smith's major essays for the magazine: Country doctor; Spanish village; Nurse midwife, all as large spreads.

After Life the book looks at various photo projects that he worked on from 1955 to 1975. Probably the two most famous were Pittsburgh (1955-1956) and Minamata (1971-1975). Pittsburgh has twenty-seven photos from the thousands he took. Smith wanted them published in a book but had to settle for eighty-eight over forty-eight pages in a 1959 Popular Photography's yearly Annual. Minamata was a Japanese fishing port were the inhabitants had suffered for years from the pollution caused by a chemical plant built in 1946. The company was prosecuted in 1969 but the victims lawyers wanted as wide a coverage as possibly of the disaster. They contacted Smith and he spent some years there eventually producing a book of photos in 1975. Ten are in the book including the remarkable and rightly famous one of a mother bathing her daughter who had suffered from mercury poisoning. This one photo celebrates Eugene Smith as a great humane photographer.

An intriguing chapter shows fourteen spreads from a book Smith worked on to sum up his career, called 'The walk to Paradise Gardens'. It only existed as a dummy and the spreads have no text. He did the layouts (which clearly wasn't his strong point) but I thought the selection of photos reveals him as one of the world's great photographers. Perhaps it was unfortunate that here was a dedicated artist who put everything he had into his work but chose a medium where the final product was very dependant on decisions made by others which he couldn't always control.

W. Eugene Smith is available at Amazon (US | CA | UK | DE | FR | IT | ES | JP | CN)

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Title spread.

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Spread from the twenty-seven page intro.

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The war in the Pacific.

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Each of the photos chapters opens on a spread like this. The country doctor from 1948.

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Great Britain photos 1950.

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Nurse midwife photos from 1951.

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The Pittsburgh series from 1956-57.

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The Pittsburgh series from 1956-57 which formed the basis of his 'Dream street' book

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NYC 1957-58.

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NYC 1957-58.

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Political protest work: 1951-1969.

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There are eight pages of Eugene Smiths projected photo autobiography. The work exists as two thick dummies.

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