Image copyright W. Eugene Smith

William Eugene Smith was a photojournalist who is known for his humanistic approach. His most famous images come from his brutal coverage of World War II.

Smith began his career shooting for two local newspapers in Wichita, Kansas. He then moved to New York City and began to work for Newsweek. He was known as a difficult perfectionist, but also for his high ideals. He was fired from Newsweek for refusing to use a medium format camera. He then joined Life Magazine in 1939 which used 35mm cameras.

While at Life Magazine, Smith entered World War II and shot photos from the front lines. He was there as the US Marines fought Japan. He shot many photo essays for Life between 1947 and 1954.

Smith was unhappy with the editorial control Life took over some of his image. He left and joined the Magnum photo agency in 1955. He proceeded to work on special projects covering the city of Pittsburgh and Jazz musicians. You can see his portfolio here.

Late in his life he documented Minamata disease, which affected many where he lived. The disease was caused by a factory discharging heavy metals into water sources around Minamata, Japan. He was attacked by employees of the company as he tried to document the disease. The attack caused him to lose sight in one eye. His wife took up his work and together they completed a photo essay that detailed the effects of the disease.

Many consider Smith the master (and likely originator) of the photo essay. His work lives on through the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund which has awarded photographers for exceptional accomplishments in the field.

This documentary was originally produced by WNET.