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?”
W. Eugene Smith: The Camera as Conscience