Friday Inspiration – W. Eugene Smith

William Eugene Smith was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1918. At the age of 14, he borrowed a camera from his mother to take photos at the local airport. Soon photography became his major interest and he spent his high school years photographing for local newspapers in Wichita. Later, Smith destroyed most of the work of this period as too poor to preserve. He then earned a photography scholarship to Notre Dame University in Indiana, but left after only one year for New York where he got a job at Newsweek. Within a year, he was fired for using “miniature” cameras (2¼ X 2¼) on assignment after he had been given specific orders not to. Smith’s reason for this was that he felt the smaller cameras gave him more freedom of seeing.

After leaving Newsweek in 1939, Smith freelanced and did his first work for Colliers, American, Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times. Eager to have his photographs seen by a wider audience and to photograph the most poignant and pressing stories, he signed a contract with Life magazine. By 1941, dissatisfied with the rut he seemed to be getting into, he resigned from Life in exchange for the creatively freer but considerably less secure life of a freelancer. In 1942 Smith worked for the publishing firm Ziff-Davis covering the war briefly in the Atlantic but most of the time in the bloody island-to-island fighting in the Pacific. Frustrated that he couldn’t get close enough to the action, he returned to Life in 1944. During that time he was involved in 26 carrier combat missions and 13 invasions. He was in Okinawa on D-Day and hitchhiked twelve hundred miles to Guam to be sure that his phots would get the fastest possible delivery back to Life. Then he returned to the invasion on the first plane on which a correspondent could arrive. In 1945, while documenting the invasion of Okinawa, Smith was hit by shrapnel and was unable to work for almost two years while he recovered from his wounds.

In the period from 1947 to 1954, Eugene Smith was to produce the great photo-essays for Life that were to redefine the meaning of the term, photojournalism, and to establish Smith as undisputed master of the field. In 1955, in disagreement over Life’s handling of one of his essays, he resigned once again from the magazine. In the two years that followed Smith undertook his monumental picture essay on the city of Pittsburgh. This essay, probably the most complex and ambitious ever attempted by a single photographer, developed Smith’s ideas of relating pictures to layout and to text in a single expressive entity. Although it was largely self-financed and threw Smith heavily into debt, aid was also received from a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956-1957.

Smith received a second Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958-1959 and began a project of photographing the city as he sees it (day and night and in all seasons of the year) through the window of his New York loft. Some of the window series was published in Life under the title Drama Beneath a Window and part of the Pittsburgh project was published in the Photography Annual, but exhaustion, illness, and personal crises prevented him bringing the text part of the essay to the quality he could find personally acceptable. Complications from his long term consumption of drugs and alcohol led to a massive stroke, from which Smith died in 1978.

Over the years Smith worked with any camera, from a Minox to a 4 X 5 press camera. In most of his work, however, he used 35 mm cameras, often having as many as six or seven around his neck and slung over his shoulders at once.

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