“Negatives are the notebooks, the jottings, the false starts, the whims, the poor drafts, and the good draft but never the completed version of the work … The print and a proper one is the only completed photograph, whether it is specifically shaded for reproduction, or for a museum wall.” — W. Eugene Smith
Leaving Notre Dame
William Eugene Smith left the University of Notre Dame where he was studying on a photography scholarship to go to New York and join the staff of Newsweek. He freelanced for Colliers, Harper’s Baazar, Life magazine, The New York Times and others. He was an on-again-off-again staffer at Life where he had a difficult working relationship throughout his career.
World War II
Working for Ziff-Davis Publishing and Life, Smith was a war correspondent in the Pacific. He was working for Life and badly wounded in 1945 on Okinawa. It took 2 years for him to get better and go back to work. This was the time he created some of his most profound work.
Working at Life, W. Eugene Smith was a pioneer of the visual documentary named the photo essay. He photographed “The Country Doctor,” “A Man of Mercy” and “Spanish Villiage” all well-known and revered stories of this style.
Smith’s last and most powerful photo essay shows the devastating effects of mercury poisoning caused by effluent from the Chisso chemical plant into Minamata Bay in Minamata, Japan. The essay documents the horror of Minamata disease caused by eating fish laced with methyl-mercury-chloride that was discharged into the bay. Birth defects from Minamata disease were particularly disturbing (bottom row, second from left of lead photo). This was one of the four environmental disasters to hit postwar Japan.
In 1971, Smith and his wife Aileen Mioko Smith relocated to Minamata to document the disaster. The result was published in the June 2, 1972 issue of Life entitled “Death-Flow from a Pipe.” The essay brought worldwide attention to pollution and the effects wrought on people and the environment.
Beaten by Chisso thugs
After the essay was published, in 1972 W. Eugene Smith was attacked by Chisso factory thugs while accompanying a group of plaintiffs to a meeting with a Chisso executive in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture. He was beaten unconscious. He came close to losing his right eye. The nerve pain resulting from the assault made it almost impossible to use his camera. He continued to work until 1974 when he and Aileen returned to Tuscon, Arizona where he completed the book on Minamata. He never returned to Japan.
The last chapter
Smith took a teaching job at the University of Arizona in 1977. He died of a stroke in October 1978. W. Eugene Smith was 59.
Quotes to ponder …
W. Eugene Smith thought deeply about photography and its power to reveal, motivate and teach. Here are just some of his thoughts in his own words.
“Available light is any damn light that is available!”
“[I crop ] for the benefit of the pictures. The world just does not fit conveniently into the format of a 35mm camera.”
“Hardening of the categories causes art disease.”
“I’ve never made any picture, good or bad, without paying for it in emotional turmoil.”
“Up to and including the moment of exposure, the photographer is working in an undeniably subjective way. By his choice of technical approach, by the selection of the subject matter … and by his decision as to the exact cinematic instant of exposure, he is blending the variables of interpretation into an emotional whole.”
Read more mini-biographies of influential photographers on Photofocus.