Hello Photoion fans and welcome to another entry in our Masters of Photography series, where we highlight the work of some of the most influential and prolific photographers of the 20th century.
In this instalment we’re looking at the life and work of W. Eugene Smith.
Born in Kansas, USA in 1918, Smith’s relationship with the camera began at an early age. After graduating high school he began capturing images for two local newspapers before moving to New York City to work for Newsweek.
It was during his time at Newsweek that Smith began to earn his reputation as a perfectionist and a difficult person to work with. Smith was eventually fired from Newsweek in part for refusing to use medium format cameras for his work. This didn’t slow Smith down though, and in 1939 he joined Life Magazine with his 35mm camera in hand.
Smith’s work for Life saw him on the front lines of the Pacific theatre of World War II, where many of his best known images were taken. Smith is remembered for his incredibly vivid, and often unsettling, images showing the horrors of war. His series, Living with the Dead in particular showed the horrors that the soldiers on the front line during the war endured every day and included many images of young soldiers close to death being buried.
Smith came to be known for this uncompromising style and through his photo-essays, he showed many important events with cold clarity.
Smith is often credited as being responsible for the rise of the photo essay as a popular form as a result of his iconic images. During his time with Life Magazine, Smith covered a variety of events, including the 1950 UK election that saw Clement Attlee’s Labour party elected.
Smith eventually left Life Magazine after the publication altered one of his images and used it in a way he did not agree with. Soon after he joined the famous Magnum Photo Agency and began his series looking at life in Pittsburgh and later his Jazz Loft Project in Manhattan.
Decades later, Smith journeyed to Japan to document the impact of the Minamata Disease. The disease is caused by mercury poisoning and was particularly brutal. The outbreak of the disease was caused by industrial wastewater and continued for more than 30 years with little government intervention.
While attempting to document the disease and show the world what was happening in the region, Smith was attacked. Though he survived, the incident left him with limited vision in one eye and he was unable to continue his work. His wife, Aileen, took up the camera and continued his work to show the world what was happening.
This relentless work ethic and hunt for the truth, however ugly, is one of Smith’s lasting legacies, and part of the reason he is still celebrated today, nearly 40 years after his death in 1978.