W. Eugene Smith, in his own lifetime, became one of photography's legendary figures. He was, undeniably, one of the worlds greatest photojournalists (in the opinion of many). He was a photographer of technical competence matched by very few and his consummate skill in the darkroom makes an original Gene Smith print a work of art in itself, over and above the skill and insight that went into the actual taking of the picture. Finally, and most important, Smith was fanatically dedicated to his mission as a photographer. His passion for truth invariably places the integrity of the picture far above such matters as monetary gain or personal safety. As a result of this dedication, Smith was a figure universally admired as an artist.
At the same time, he was often regarded by editors as "troublesome" because of his steadfast refusal to allow his pictures, their layout, and often the text that accompanies them to be molded by the policy of the magazine or anything else other than his personal vision. But if Smith endured personal hardships for the sake of his work, he always had the satisfaction of being true to himself and he has probably, more than any other individual, raised the art of the photographic essay to unequalled heights.
William Eugene Smith was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1918. At the age of 14, he was interested in aeronautical engineering and borrowed a camera from his mother (also an enthusiastic photographer) to take pictures of the planes at the local airport. Soon photography became his major interest and he spent his high-school years photographing for local newspapers in Wichita. The subjects of most of these early pictures were sports, aviation, and significantly the Depression tragedy of the Dust Bowl. Later Smith destroyed most of the work of this period as too poor to preserve. "I had an intuitive sense of timing, an impossibly poor technique, and excitement to the fact of the event rather than of interpretive insight. Although I often was deeply moved, I did not have the power to communicate it," he says.
In 1936, at age 18, Gene Smith entered Notre Dame University where his pictures so impressed the faculty and administration that a special photographic scholarship was created for him. A year later, Smith left the University because of "friendly but hackneyed" demands that were made on his work. The emergence at that time of an exciting new picture magazine, Life, turned young Smith's eyes toward the challenge of New York. Soon he joined the staff of Newsweek but within a year was fired for using "miniature" cameras (2¼ X 2¼) on assignment after he had been given specific orders not to. Smith's reason for this was that he felt the smaller cameras gave him more freedom of seeing. Over the years to come Smith worked with any camera, from a Minox to a 4 X 5 press camera. In most of his work, however, he used 35 mm cameras, often having as many as six or seven around his neck and slung over his shoulders at once.
After leaving Newsweek, Smith free lanced and did his first work for Life, Colliers, American, The New York Times, and other publications. He describes his work during this period as "overconscious of technique and artificial light, mainly multiple flash."
A year later, in 1939, two important events took place in young Gene Smith's life. The first was his discovery of the world of music which was from that time on to have a major influence on his thinking and creative outlook. Second, he signed a retainer contract with Life magazine. By 1941, Smith had grown dissatisfied with the rut he seemed to be getting into and (against the advice of his co-workers at the magazine) resigned his Life post for the creatively freer but considerably less secure life of a free lancer. "I...made brash, dashing interpretive photographs which were overly clever and with too much technique.., with great depth of field, very little depth of feeling, and with considerable ‘success'."
Then came the war. In 1942 Gene Smith became a war correspondent first for Ziff-Davis (Flying and Popular Photography) and later for Life. Smith photographed the war, briefly in the Atlantic but most of the time in the bloody island-to-island fighting in the Pacific. During that time he was involved in 26 carrier combat missions and 13 invasions. He was in Okinawa on D-Day and hitch-hiked twelve hundred miles to Guam to be sure that his pictures would get the fastest possible delivery back to Life. Then he returned to the invasion on the first plane on which a correspondent could arrive.
Ernie Pyle, another great war correspondent, who was on Okinawa with Smith and was not so lucky, wrote of him, "Gene Smith is an idealist, trying to do great good with his work but it will either break him or kill him."
Smith's war wounds cost him two painful years of hospitalization and plastic surgery. During these years he took no pictures and whether he would ever be able to return to photography was doubtful. Then one day, during his period of convalescence, Smith took a walk with his two children and even though it was still intensely painful for him to operate a camera, came back with one of the most famous photographs of all time: "A Walk to Paradise Garden." This memorable image was to serve as the final picture in the famous "Family of Man" Exhibition.
In the period from 1947 to 1954, Gene Smith was to produce the great photo-essays for Life that were to redefine the meaning of the term, photojournalism, and to establish Smith as undisputed master of the field. Among these essays were: Country Doctor, Hard Times on Broadway, Spanish Village, Southern Midwife, and Man of Mercy (about Dr. Schweitzer in Africa).
In the two years that followed Smith undertook his monumental picture essay on the city of Pittsburgh. This essay, probably the most complex and ambitious ever attempted by a single photographer, developed Smith's ideas of relating pictures to layout and to text in a single expressive entity. Although it was largely self-financed and threw Smith heavily into debt, aid was also received from a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956-1957.
Smith received a second Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958-1959 and began a project of photographing the city as he sees it (day and night and in all seasons of the year) through the window of his New York loft. Some of the window series was published in Life under the title Drama Beneath a Window and part of the Pittsburgh project was published in the Photography Annual, but exhaustion, illness, and personal crises prevented him bringing the text part of the essay to the quality he could find personally acceptable.
In addition to photographing, Smith taught a class in photojournalism (titled "Photography Made Difficult") at New York's New School for Social Research and served as president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. Of himself he says: "I am an idealist. I often feel I would like to be an artist in an ivory tower. Yet it is imperative that I speak to people, so I must desert that ivory tower. To do this, I am a journalist—a photojournalist. But I am always torn between the attitude of the journalist, who is a recorder of facts, and the artist, who is often necessarily at odds with the facts. My principle concern is for honesty, above all honesty with myself..."