On the Trail of Gene Smith in Berkeley

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After leaving Monterey on Monday I drove up to meet with Professor Stanley Brandes in the Anthropology Department at Berkeley.  Later that night I went to the nearby home of ninety-two year-old photographer Wayne Miller.  I had been introduced to both men by the noted photographer Ken Light of Berkeley’s journalism and photography programs.

Brandes has done extensive research on Gene Smith’s classic “Spanish Village,” some of the work in tandem with Jesus M. de Miguel of Barcelona.  Their work points out discrepancies between Smith’s documentary work in Deleitosa in 1950 and the reality of the village at the time.  Brandes and de Miguel have painstakingly shown that Smith had something particular in his mind when he went to Spain – a traditional village under domination of Franco – and that’s what he intended to portray no matter what he found there.

Brandes told me, “Smith thought he could singlehandedly halt a loan from the United States to Franco’s regime by showing a backward Spanish village that had been stifled and abused by Franco.”

The work of Brandes and de Miguel is much more complex than I can state here.  Much of their work was published only in Spanish and I have not had time to translate it, yet.  Smith is Brandes’ favorite photographer, so this work isn’t about debunking Smith, per se.  It’s more complicated than that.

What Brandes had to say jibed with what Wayne Miller told me later that night.

Miller’s ninety-second birthday had been Sunday.  He first met Smith at a restaurant in Washington D.C. in 1942.  Miller was a stalwart in Steichen’s naval photography unit, which Smith was disallowed to join for physical reasons.  Instead, Smith landed journalistic assignments in the war from Ziff-Davis, LIFE, and others.

Miller’s wife Joan was with him that night at the restaurant in 1942 and here she was with Miller during my visit in Berkeley on Monday night.  They’ve been together for seven decades.  I hadn’t counted on this bonus, and that’s why you do this work in person, if you can, and not over the telephone.  Joan remembered that earlier that day in 1942 Smith had landed his first war assignments with Ziff-Davis and he was elated.  Joan said, “I clearly remember him saying, ‘I’m twenty-one and about to go off to war.’”  Smith was actually twenty-three at the time but to bend the truth slightly for impact would have been natural for him.

Wayne Miller, who like Smith went on to join Magnum, clearly relates to Smith fondly:  “We were great dreamers.  Photography was about what you felt rather than what you saw.  There was a sense of empathy.  You pursued a gut feeling.  Our work wasn’t for intellectuals.  We were participants in our photography emotionally and we weren’t embarrassed about it.  We wanted to scream out the importance of what we felt and how we reacted to what we saw.”

When Smith moved into 821 Sixth Avenue and left his family in Croton-on-Hudson, “He put himself into exile, damn it,” said Miller.  At roughly the same time Miller began photographing his family with profound connection and emotion – his wife giving birth, his kids from infancy through school ages.  It’s clear today that Miller is most proud of this work, more than, say, his acclaimed photojournalism from the streets of Chicago.  Miller stressed that he and Gene, after a certain point, took different paths.  The two men were born in 1918.  Smith died in 1978 of, by and large, self-destruction, and Miller is still alive and healthy today and so is Joan.

Meanwhile, 22 tons of Smith’s life’s work rest peacefully in his archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.  How do you measure this trade off?  It makes you wonder.  It makes me wonder.  I’ve generated a so-called career from Smith’s archive.

It’s clear I’m not a natural photographer, because I sat there in Wayne and Joan’s home for a couple of hours and it never occurred to me to make a photograph of the two of them to document my visit.  My instinct is that of a writer; to get out a pad and pen, turn on an unobtrusive audio recorder, and be quiet, to talk only enough necessary to (I hope) express sincerity and gratitude and engagement.  That’s what I did.  But I’m kicking myself for not getting a photo of Wayne and Joan.

I did, however, snap a shot with my iPhone of a beautiful Live Oak next to their house.  Ken Light told me that Wayne planted this tree as a sapling when they moved into the house in 1951.

-Sam Stephenson

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