Writing about his work for an exhibition catalogue in 1954, famed documentary photographer and photo-essayist W. Eugene Smith described the creative dynamic that propelled his work beyond photojournalism into the realm of art.
“It is imperative that I speak to people, and to do this I am a photographic journalist,” explained Smith, who to this day remains one of the most important and influential photographers from the golden era of magazine photojournalism.
It is Smith’s rare ability to capture the truth and poetry in the facts of everyday life that is the hallmark of his creative genius, and that is on full display in the Center for Photographic Arts’ upcoming exhibition of approximately 40 of his vintage prints.
“This is such a special show, and one of the reasons we went for it is we haven’t done a lot of photo-documentation and we want to keep a balance of showing different genres of photography,” says CPA Executive Director Dennis High.
High believes the significance of Smith’s photography derives from his inherent belief in the artistic value of his work.
“What’s interesting is the way Smith reacted and how he felt himself to be a photo-essayist occupying a middle space between being an artist and photojournalist,” remarks High. “His iconic pictures always had an artistic aesthetic that was universal, and he’s one of the few documentary photographers that crossed over into the art world.”
The photographs on display at the CPA are part of an invaluable collection of approximately 148 vintage prints acquired directly from the Smith family estate by Santa Cruz-based collector and art dealer Bill Denton and his former partner, Los Angeles art dealer Simon Lewinsky.
This show marks the first time any prints from the collection have been shown in a large-scale exhibition. Made up primarily of rarely seen images, the CPA exhibit isn’t a showcase of the photographer’s most famous images—those not familiar with the Smith canon will most likely not come away from the show with a full appreciation for Smith’s talent. But for those who know Smith’s work, the exhibition provides a wonderful example of the wide range of the artist’s interests and subject matter.
Although many of the photographs don’t compare to Smith’s finest work, there are still many outstanding gems that rank with the best of his oeuvre. Among the highlights are several portraits, including one of composer Leopold Stokowski taken in 1951 as part of a series on musical recording artists, composers and musicians; and a marvelous portrait entitled, “Steelworker with Goggles, 1955,” a bold exercise in modernism in which the monumental head of a steelworker projects out from an abstract background of geometric planes as the flames of the plant furnaces dance in reflection in the man’s goggles.
Other highlights include a strong group of industrial abstracts, and a nice selection of individual photos from some of Smith’s more famous photo-essays.
Smith’s photographic technique is always transparent and never draws attention to itself. Smith possessed a sophisticated appreciation for the uses of light, composition and framing as devices for storytelling, all of which he used to share his vision and empathy, and his sense of the universal truths and emotions that are the basis of the human experience.
Smith’s biography is the stuff of legend. Born in Wichita, Kansas in 1918, he became a working news photographer at age 15, and joined Newsweek in 1937. Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s Smith photographed for most of the major publications of the day, including Harper’s Bazaar, Colliers and Life, with whom he signed a contract in 1939 as one of four original photographers for the magazine. By the age of 23, he had published 370 photo stories and single images, securing a position as one of the most important photojournalists of his era.
During World War II, Smith produced many important and iconic combat photographs from Europe and the South Pacific that were unflinching in their examination of the horrors of war. Smith flew on 23 combat air missions and covered 13 invasions, including the battle for Okinawa in 1945, where he was severely wounded.
After a two-year recuperation, Smith returned to Life magazine where he produced a series of landmark photo-essays, including stories on Albert Schweitzer, a country doctor, Haiti, and life in a Spanish village that cemented Smith’s reputation as the pre-eminent photo-essayist in all of photojournalism.
After an acrimonious split with Life over the editing of his work, Smith pursued a series of personal and professional assignments, including an essay on the city of Pittsburgh for which he was awarded one of three Guggenheim fellowships, and perhaps his most famous project, a book on the Japanese fishing village of Minimata and the disastrous impact of industrial mercury poisoning on its population.
Smith died in 1978 in Tuscon, Arizona, where he spent his final years teaching photography and organizing his archive housed at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
Looking back on his career and photographic achievements, Smith acknowledged his desire to be perceived and appreciated as an artist.
“To have his photographs live on in history is the final desire of nearly every photographer-artist who works in journalism,” he said. “I find no conflict between being an artist and a journalist, for the strongest way I can be a good journalist is by being the strongest artist I can.”
The W. Eugene Smith show opens April 30 with a reception from 6-8pm at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel.