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Photography Masters - W. Eugene Smith
Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - W. Eugene Smith

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Born in 1918 in Kansas, W Eugene Smith has been referred to as perhaps the most remembered American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay. His passionate and idealistic commitment to learn the truth about his subjects through a series of photographic essays for LIFE and other publications was remarkable. So much so that he sacrificed his career on the altar of self-destructive idealism—and died at the age of 59 with just $18 in the bank.

When Smith was a war correspondent for LIFE magazine, he covered many battles; and he viewed his photographs of World War II as a ‘powerful emotional catalyst’ that would lay bare the futility of wars and prevent their recurrence. In fact the 1945 invasion of Okinawa left him critically wounded while he was covering it; he had to undergo 32 operations over a period of two years. Once he had recovered, his first photograph thereafter was The Walk to Paradise Garden: the image of his own children entering a forest clearance became one of his most iconic photographs.

Photography Masters - W. Eugene Smith
Waiting for Survivors: The Andrea Doria Sinking, 1956. This is a striking image of a nun amidst a crowd of people. Her attire, gesture and a thoughtful expression makes her stand out of rest. Her placement of her face follows the “Rule of Thirds” of composition which states that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.

It was also during this post-recuperative phase that Smith produced many of his best photo essays, including Country Doctor, Spanish Village, A Man of Mercy and Nurse Midwife.

In mid 1950s, Smith joined Magnum, the international cooperative photography agency founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, among others, and began work on a large photographic study of Pittsburgh, for which he received Guggenheim Fellowships in 1956 and 1957.

Photography Masters - W. Eugene Smith
Charlie Chaplin looking in a mirror, 1952. This powerful image captures the emotion of Chaplin in front of a makeup mirror. Smith uses an interesting perspective of the reflection instead of the subject. The nature of the lighting creates a strong dramatic look.

Around the same time, he began a series of photographs of New York street scenes taken from his Sixth Avenue window; a part of which was published in LIFE titled Drama Beneath a City Window.

Subsequently was published a book of his photographs, Japan—Chapter of Image. His last great work was the photo essay, Minamata completed in the 1970s, depicting victims of mercury poisoning in a Japanese fishing village. While photographing this project he was severely beaten by several local factory workers who were opposed to his expose.

Photography Masters - W. Eugene Smith
The Wake, Spanish Village, 1951. This photo looks like it is straight out of a movie set. The two key focal points are the dead man’s face and the lady in the centre who is looking pensively at the dead man which are lit the brightest compared to other parts of the photo. The other people’s expressions further add emotion to the grim scene.

There is no doubt that Smith developed the photo essay to its ultimate form. It was the standards that he set as an exacting printer, his technical mastery and more importantly blended with the combination of innovation, idealism and integrity that made his work the benchmark by which photojournalism was measured for many years.

Smith had married and divorced twice, before he died of a stroke in 1978. Today, Smith’s legacy lives on through the W. Eugene Smith Fund to promote ‘humanistic photography’, which awards photographers for exceptional accomplishments in the field.

Photography Masters - W. Eugene Smith
Walk to Paradise Garden, 1946. The subjects (children) in this photo are silhouetted against a bright background while the dark foliage of the forest covers the frame. This photo can be interpreted in many ways – walking from darkness to light, hope, friendship, innocence, etc.

Talking about his philosophy about photography, W. Eugene Smith said, “I put so much passion and so much energy into the doing of my photographs that beyond photography for art’s sake, ‘art for art’s sake,’ or such, I much prefer to have my photographs add this other element, that possibly they will stir someone to action, to do something about something. I would like to make clear at the very beginning that I have no conflict between journalism and my artist self. At one time I did, but then I realized to be a good journalist I needed to be the finest artist I could possibly be. As far as I am concerned, I just very quietly accept photography as an art. Some of the photographs I have taken have changed others’ lives, too, because I know from the history of my own work that at times through photographs I have been able to destroy a concentration camp; I have been able to build a clinic for a nurse midwife; I have in some measure been able to help a little fighting the disease of pollution and racism. I don’t feel all that dedicated. I just feel like a normal guy that too many people insist upon becoming a legend, but I feel humble and always on the threshold of knowing how to do my work.”

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Siddharth Kumar, is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London