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W. Eugene Smith: Father of the Photo Essay


Last week, I talked about the photo essay “Country Doctor” by W. Eugene Smith, and today I would like to focus more on his life and photography in general.

William Eugene Smith has been described as “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay.” He shot photo projects so large that they cannot be displayed in any museum. Let’s take a closer look at this brilliant photographer.

William Eugene Smith was born in Kansas in 1918. He was given his first camera at the age of 9 after he wanted to photograph airplanes. By the age of 15, he was already published in local newspapers.

Sadly, his father committed suicide the same year Smith graduated from high school. When the local news twisted the story about his father’s death, it inspired him to start his photojournalist career. This event shaped him and his standards for the rest of his life.

Available light is any damn light that is available! —W. Eugene Smith

When he moved to New York, he worked for several magazines, including Life. He was known to be a perfectionist and stubborn, and he was even fired from Newsweek because he refused to stop using his 35mm Contax in favor of large-format negatives.

When we talk about his work, it’s very hard to present his pictures in a complete way. He typically shot what we would today call a photo essay: when he was assigned to cover a story, he would create tens of thousands of pictures to support it. So even though I know it is not possible to cover every event in his life, I have picked some assignments that I think will illustrate his photography.

One of the first assignments Smith took was a photojournalistic profile of Maude E. Callen, a trained nurse and midwife in South Carolina. Smith photographed her for six weeks during her work taking care of her patients.

Deeply moved by her work he wrote:

No story could translate justly the life depth of this wonderful, patient, directional woman who is my subject — and I love her, do love her with a respect I hold for almost no one. Humble, I am in the presence of this simple, complex, positive, greatness; on end on in herself appointed rounds beyond paid-for duty.

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Maude E. Callen was a nurse-midwife in South Carolina for 60 years. She operated a rural community clinic out of her home and attended between 600-800 births throughout her career in addition to training others in midwifery care. She provided in-home services to a 400-square mile area of predominantly impoverished people of color. In 1951, this photo by celebrated photojournalist W. Eugene Smith was published in a 12-page photo essay about Callen in LIFE magazine. Smith spent weeks observing her providing midwifery services and is quoted as saying Maude “is the most completely fulfilled person I have ever known.” __ Written by @katievigos Source: Wikipedia Photo: W. Eugene Smith __ #midwifery #blackhistorymonth #midwife #empoweredbirthproject #maudecallen

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After that, American readers actually donated money to build her clinic in South Carolina.

Country Doctor

I discussed this photo essay in my previous article. If you would like to find out more about this topic, you can also watch this previous video:


In 1954, Smith resigned from Life magazine, mostly because of their restrictions, and joined Magnum Photos as an associate. His next project was actually to photography Pittsburgh for picture editor Stefan Lorant’s pictorial history of the city.

The project that was supposed to take three weeks turned into a three-year project with more than 17,000 images. The book was eventually published as Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City, and Lorant used 64 images taken by Smith.

When looking at his photos, you can see contrasts he emphasized: water and land, steel and grass, rich and poor. Smith seemed to be little conflicted when later judging this project. He saw it as a failure, as it was unfinished, but also as the finest set of photographs he had ever produced.

Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft project is a series of recordings and photographs taken by Smith from 1957 to 1965 at a Manhattan loft. It contains approximately 4,000 hours of recordings and almost 40,000 photographs.

The cataloging and preserving of his work are directed by Sam Stephenson at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in cooperation with the Center for Creative Photography.

Japan and Minamata

In 1971, Smith and his wife Aileen stayed in a small fishing village for three years. He helped to uncover the story of Minamata disease, a tragedy caused by mercury poisoning caused by the Chisso factory, which was spoiling water sources with heavy metals, resulting in children being born with disabilities. PHOTO: https://www.instagram.com/p/BwRabnXjO_B/ The story was published by several magazines and newspapers after Smith and his wife were attacked by Chisso employees and almost did not survive the attack.

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“Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought.” – W. Eugene Smith . W. Eugene Smith made his last photo essay about industrial mercury poisoning in the Japanese city of Minamata, helping to bring justice and visibility to the victims. . Today on Magnum: We speak to Smith's then-wife and photographic partner Aileen M. Smith about their collaboration on the project. Link in bio. . PHOTO: Takako Isayama, a 12-year-old fetal (congenital) victim of the Minamata disease, with her mother. Minamata. Japan. 1972 . © #WEugeneSmith/#MagnumPhotos

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“Minamata” was Smith’s last big photo essay. After Japan, he first returned back to New York, and soon after that to Arizona to teach at the University of Arizona. However, he suffered several strokes and died in 1978.

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.