Although young, his photography talent was soon evident, and he was hired by the local newspaper to photograph sports, aviation and the devastation of the Dust Bowl. Smith’s talent led to a special scholarship designed specifically for him to study photography at Notre Dame, but he left after his first semester. His restlessness took him to New York, where he was hired by Newsweek. Eventually, he worked for Life and freelanced for periodicals including Colliers, American, The New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar. During this time he married and had two children.
While working for Life, Smith was assigned as a war correspondent and became legendary for his emotionally charged and truthful images. It was important to Smith to photograph the war with heart and preciseness. He photographed 26 carrier combat missions and 13 invasions in the Pacific and in Europe, on land, sea and in the air. His images were even published in Japanese magazines.
His work was interrupted in 1945, May 22, during the invasion of Okinawa. His face and hands were severely injured by a grenade. After two painful years of numerous surgeries and recovery, Smith could barely hold a camera but felt a growing need and desire to make images that were signs of hope and happiness and socially conscious. “ The day I again tried for the first time to make a photograph, I could barely load the roll of film into the camera. Yet I was determined that the first photograph would be a contrast to the war photographs and that it would speak an affirmation of life… “
His first photograph after his injury was of his two young children emerging from a dark wooded area. It was titled The Walk to Paradise Garden. It became one of his most famous and best-loved works, and was chosen by Edward Steichen as the final image in The Family of Man exhibit. Returning to his work, Smith went on to produce a series of provocative photographic essays including the most famous The Spanish Village, Country Doctor, and Nurse Midwife. He spent weeks immersing himself in the lives of his subjects, an approach almost unheard of at the time.
Life published several of these essays, and although his photojournalistic methods were cutting-edge and brilliant, he had a difficult time with editors. Smith refused to allow any photographs and their layout to be anything but his own personal vision. He resigned from Life magazine and joined Magnum, which supported and fought for photojournalistic rights.
After Smith left Life, he continued to produce photo essays, supported by three Guggenheim fellowship grants. One of the largest photographic essays that he produced was of the city of Pittsburgh. He moved to Pittsburgh where he threw himself, obsessively, into the project. Smith took more than 11,000 photographs, but was physically, mentally and financially broke after the project. The images were never published and caused turmoil with Magnum and Smith’s family. He left Magnum and his family and moved to New York where he produced a series of images from his window.
A more successful photographic essay was Minimata. In 1971 Smith married Aileen Mioka Sprague and began his feverous project on Minimata, a small fishing village in Japan. The water in the village had been poisoned with mercury because of industrialization. An entire generation of people were born with horrible defects.
By this time Smith was the recipient of numerous awards and traveled extensively to teach and lecture. He moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1977 to teach at the University of Arizona and organize his archive at the Center for Creative Photography. On October 15, 1978, Smith suffered a fatal stroke.
W. Eugene Smith was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1984 and his honorary panel is sponsored by Rangefinder Magazine. He was inducted for his revolutionary photojournalism and setting the standard for the photo essay. Hal Gould said, “W. Eugene Smith was famous at twenty and a legend at forty. During the 1940s and 50s, when the leading edge of creative photography was found in photojournalism, Smith’s deeply humanistic style of photographic reportage continually restructured and expanded the expressive possibilities of the photo essay to a major credit level.”
The Center for Creative Photography in Arizona holds the largest collection of W. Eugene Smith, which includes 3,000 master prints, thousands of negatives, contact sheets, proof and study prints, book dummies, magazine layouts, letters, cameras, darkroom equipment and records. The Smith family has founded the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, a grant-giving organization recognizing photographers who demonstrate a commitment to humanitarian photography.
“…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, and above all honesty with myself….”
By Lori Oden For IPHF