The Legacy of W. Eugene Smith – The Camera as Conscience

The first time I saw W. Eugene Smith’s photographs was in a fine art photography class in college.  As we worked on our own pictures in the darkroom, we talked with awe about Smith’s legendary obsession for perfection, which drove him to spend long days in the darkroom. His drive and idealism fascinated me.  He was so dedicated to his ideals and principles  that later in his career, he was fired for refusing to use medium-format cameras.  Smith was fanatically dedicated to his mission as a photographer, and because of his drive for perfection and his dedication he was often regarded by editors as difficult.

During his coverage of the Second World War, he was severely wounded while on the east coast of Okinawa photographing an essay titled ‘A Day in the Life of a Front Line Soldier’. He endured two years of hospitalization and plastic surgery, and commented later that it was his policy to stand up when others were down, and that he had forgotten to duck.

While documenting the story of a chemical company in Minamata, the severity of the irreparable damage caused by industrial mercury poisoning became apparent. Recognizing Smith and his work as an extreme liability, thugs from the pro-company union attacked him. Smith documented his own beating and, although he survived, he experienced substantial permanent damage to his eyesight.

During the Minamata project, Smith produced one particularly profound image which anyone who has seen it will never forget. The photograph shows a mother bathing her daughter, a young girl (her name was Tomoko Uemura), who suffered extreme birth defects and mental retardation from the poisoning. The depth of tenderness, compassion and selflessness displayed by the mother is a gift to all who view the image.

To me, that image,  represents Smith’s unique ability to combine the eye of a photographer and the attitude of an artist with raw honesty and uncompromising integrity.

Unfortunately, we cannot reproduce this picture because Aileen Mioko Smith, Eugene’s partner in the Minamata project and holder of the copyright, and the family of the girl decided that the photograph would no longer be issued. As Aileen Mioko Smith says:

“In 1997, Tomoko’s parents asked me to let Tomoko rest. I agreed, and we mutually decided that the photograph would no longer be issued. It’s so hard to communicate the beauty of the decision that was made, but it was a positive statement made by both of us.”

The image is truly inspiring, and shows the love and compassion to which we should all aspire.

To me, this image represents Smith’s unique ability to combine the eye of a photographer and the attitude of an artist with raw honesty and uncompromising integrity. All photographers, in one sense or another, are heirs to his legacy.

One of his quotes summarizes his philosophy:  “What use having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling?”

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W. Eugene Smith: The Camera as Conscience

10 Responses to “The Legacy of W. Eugene Smith – The Camera as Conscience”

  1. Thanks for finally talking about >The Legacy of W. Eugene Smith – The Camera as Conscience | Steve McCurry’s Blog <Loved it!

  2. Arthur Says:

    I just wanted to point out that the above mentioned picture of Tomoko is posted on a website on internet dedicated to Eugene Smith.

  3. Its funny how photos will stand out in your mind. This is one photo that I will never forget.

    Because of photographers like Steve McCurry, Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson and many others, makes me want to go towards photojournalism. I am sure I will not make a million, but that is not why I picked up my camera.

  4. Grace Chow Says:

    Fascinating ! Learnt a lot from some of the insightful comments about photography and of life, too, I think. Maybe I can get someone to take a photograph of me, caring for my son, Nicholas…he was attacked in 2001, one night, while out walking by himself. He can’t speak or walk now…I’ve been grieving and crying for 9 long, painful, torturous years. I want the world to know what a senseless, random act of violence can do to a mother, a family and a lovely, young man who was just starting out on his life as an adult…

  5. Touching and moving. It is a pleasure to read these words!

  6. Needed to second to give you recognition, yes please continue with your articles, i really enjoy them. You always can publish something fascinating that doesn’t bore me to death like what you find on many other sites.

  7. Steve, yet again more knowledge for me to absorb. I am not consciously familiar with W. Eugene Smith’s work, but will start to look and learn/study from his world, eye. I believe, from my experience that photography is a continuous process of learning from others, myself and life. I strive to be with the moment as I capture it.

    I found this blog entry reflective, thank you.

  8. Sir I am a huge fan of you photography and I learn a lot from your photographs, they are a huge source of inspiration for me, and every photograph is so unique..
    http://www.sushantacharekar.wordpress.com

  9. […] ¶ Steve McCurry wrote a nice article about the legacy of landmark photographer W. Eugene Smith. Smith shot for all the big magazines of the day: Newsweek, Look, Life. He covered the Second World War in the Pacific Theatre and is credited “as perhaps the originator and arguably the master of the photo-essay” (from Wikipedia). Smith made a famous image of 20-year old Tomoko Uemura when he did a photo essay on mercury poisoning in Japan. The photo – not generally shown any more – can be seen in the archives at the Masters of Photography website. It is as stunning as it is memorable. McCurry writes: “During the Minamata project, Smith produced one particularly profound image which anyone who has seen it will never forget. The photograph shows a mother bathing her daughter, a young girl (her name was Tomoko Uemura), who suffered extreme birth defects and mental retardation from the poisoning. The depth of tenderness, compassion and selflessness displayed by the mother is a gift to all who view the image. […]

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