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Country Doctor: A Photo Essay by W. Eugene Smith


I’m Martin from the All About Street Photography channel. In this 6-minute video and article, I am going to talk about the photo essay “Country Doctor” by W. Eugene Smith. We’ll be taking a closer look at the story behind some photographs.

First, if you are not familiar with W. Eugene Smith, make sure to check out this previous video I made about his life and photography.

In 1948, Life magazine commissioned Smith to spend 23 days with Dr. Ernest Ceriani and produce a photo essay about Colorado’s country doctor.

Smith has been called “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay.” He was known to shoot projects so extensive that they cannot be displayed in any museum as they usually contain tens of thousands of images. The best known and most important ones are, for example, “Minamata Japan” or “The Pacific War.”

It’s important to understand that for this photo essay, the country doctor was shot in post-war, pre-television, pre-Internet times, and magazines such as Life were very important for people to get information. Life magazine had about 20 million readers at that time.

In 1948, the National Health Service was launched in England, so health care could no longer be exclusive only to those who could afford it. The American Medical Association was concerned about the general practitioner and its future in the US, as medical schools were pushing their graduates into lucrative specializations rather than general practice.

Doctors with high specialization were also more likely to move to bigger cities even though a lot of people still lived in rural areas.

Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes one photograph, or a group of them, can lure our sense of awareness. —W. Eugene Smith

Looking to support private general practice, American Medical Association contacted the Colorado Medical Society, and it recommended Dr. Ceriani as he was young, photogenic, and most suitable as a subject for a strong statement to support general practice and get publicity. The goal of the essay was to attract young students of medical schools to become general practitioners.

Dr. Ernest Ceriani settled in Kremmling, Colorado, after leaving a hospital in Denver since he didn’t like the busy and bureaucratic hospital. The population of Kremmling was somewhere around 650 people (though some sources mention 2,000 people).

When Smith met Dr. Ernest Ceriani, it was just one year after Ceriani settled in Kremmling and they were both of the same age. Smith photographed Dr. Ceriani in all types of situations — when working, when not working, his personal life, together with patients, and even during operations.

Here’s a beautiful photo of Dr. Ceriani on the way to visit his patients:

Dr. Ceriani worked long and hard, as we can see in this photo that Smith took when he was sleeping on an operating table.

It is hard to imagine today — that you would visit your doctor and he would be with a photographer taking pictures of you while you are being taken care of. It was actually a difficult thing for Dr. Ceriani to introduce Smith to the patients and explain why he was there. Smith was following his every movement and Ceriany said himself that it didn’t take long until he started to ignore him.

This next photo is probably one of the most well-known shots — it catches Dr. Ceriani smoking with a cup of coffee exhausted. This photo was taken after his patients, a woman and her child, both died and he could not do anything about it.

He would always be present. He would always be in the shadows. I would make the introduction and then go about my business as if he were just a door knob. —Dr. Ernest Ceriani

The photo essay was a huge success and Dr. Ceriani became something of a celebrity. The story was revisited several times and the doctor went on to get invited onto TV shows and the radio. Dr. Ceriani spent his whole professional life in Kremmling before passing away at the age of 72.

Life magazine was very pleased with the work. It was an insight into the work of a practitioner that had never been seen before until then. Smith was very critical of himself and his work. He even said that he didn’t really like hearing compliments about it and that he had stopped looking at it because he saw so many defects every time he looked at it. He also wasn’t happy about the layout Life magazine picked to present the photos with.

This was actually typical for Smith, as he was almost never satisfied with the way his photos were presented. According to him, the order of the photographs was as important as each individual photo. Life magazine published about 30 photos out of the 200 photos Smith selected. In 1954, Smith left Life magazine after another disagreement over edits of his essay and joined Magnum the year after.

About the author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, reviewer, and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kaninsky runs the channel All About Street Photography. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.