W. Eugene Smith

 ~ one of a series of posts dedicated to icons in the field of photography ~

W. Eugene Smith joined his turbulent era at the close of the Great War, the eve of a second and larger conflict only two short decades away. In the calm between storms he matured and fell in love with photography and honed his skill. When peace shattered once again, he carried his camera into battle to testify against war and violence. He was a voice of social conscience to a broken world. Enigmatic and complicated, He was a man in a dark place looking for light and determined to use that light in the service of a hurting mankind.

He worked for numerous journalistic organizations and was privileged to serve at Life and Magnum, preeminent voices in their time that recorded history in pictures. Employers considered him troublesome and he resigned more than one post because an editor attempted to compromise his vision. He was fervently devoted to the belief that photography could make a difference for people in this world:

“…sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought.” 

smith-war2

Iwo Jima

He patrolled the front lines of the Pacific beside the soldiers because, as he said,

“I would that my photographs might be, not the coverage of a news-event but and indictment of war – the brutal corrupting viciousness of its doing to the minds and bodies of men; and that my photographs might be a powerful emotional catalyst to the reasoning which would help this vile and criminal stupidity from beginning again.”

He marched into harm’s way to achieve that end. Once, he staged a battle scene for the camera and played the part of a soldier in his own picture. He triggered an explosion behind him and the blast damaged his hearing for life. Later, while covering the battle for Okinawa he was wounded by a shell fragment that tore through his hand and face as he stood to take a picture. Two years of rehabilitation and plastic surgery would heal his wounds, but as he lay in the hospital immediately after, he said to the nurse, “I forgot to duck but I got a wonderful shot of those who did…”

ESmith-war

For me, the most memorable story about Smith’s unwavering passion to pursue the truth at any cost occurred off the battlefield. The story involves Ernie Pyle, the great war correspondent who stalked the front lines with his pen. He, Eugene and other correspondents were together in the staging area off Guam drinking away the nightmares of war. Smith recounts in his book Let Truth Be the Prejudice, Pyle was “nervous and frightened, and hounded by his friends to make no more landings, [when] he asked me if he had to do it and be honest to himself and his job — I answered, amid the glares of his friends (and my friends), ‘Yes Ernie, even if you die, you have to make that landing, and the next, and the next.'”

Sources and more about Smith:

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