Eugene and Aileen Smith’s Minamata Work in Virginia, Part II

This weekend I attended the conference at William & Mary, Mercury: a Hazard without Borders, an impressive production crossing just about every discipline a university can offer, from environmental science, natural resources, and health care to the humanities and visual arts, even theater.

As I mentioned before, I was drawn to the conference by the appearance of W. Eugene Smith’s former wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, who was a keynote speaker.  Aileen and I have exchanged emails for years but we had never met.  A show of twenty-five vintage prints made by the Smiths from Minamata in the early 1970’s opened at the Muscarelle Museum of Art on Friday night after Aileen’s public presentation.  The show is curated by Professor Elizabeth Mead and titled Unbearable Beauty: Triumph of the Human Spirit. It includes ten vintage prints from other parts of Smith’s career such as Pittsburgh, Albert Schweitzer, Haiti, and Smith’s children.  The additional prints represent Smith’s ongoing fixation with human hands (which appears often in his Jazz Loft series, too).  In Minamata hands were often deformed from effects of the mercury pollution.

The most legendary photograph of Smith’s career, Tomoko Uemura in her Bath, is the centerpiece of the exhibition.  I’ve seen the same print in Smith’s archive at the Center for Creative Photography many times, but this was the first time I’ve seen it framed and lit in a museum and the size of it – twenty-five by forty inches – stunned me.  The details in the dark colors of the print, presented like this, made it clearer to me that Tomoko and her mother were in a very small room.  How close Smith must have been standing to them in this devastating and tender scene; how much trust Tomoko’s mother must have felt toward Smith.  It’s worth traveling to Williamsburg before the show ends on June 20 to see this rare museum presentation of this print.

By the time I began researching Smith in 1997, Aileen, who owns this print and the copyright for all of the Minamata materials, had pulled the image from circulation because of increasing pain felt by Tomoko’s family from the ongoing exposure of this photograph.  When I authored the W. Eugene Smith book in the Phaidon 55 series in 2001, for example, I wasn’t allowed to include that image.  Aileen didn’t say this to me, but perhaps the context of this conference, with its practical goals and concerns as opposed to an exhibition of fine art for fine art’s sake, or the making of subject into object, made this presentation okay.

In her talk Aileen described how she and Gene both were “yearning for a homecoming” when they traveled to Japan in 1971.  Aileen’s mother was Japanese and she was raised there for several years as a kid, so it was literally home for her and she lives in Kyoto today.  She said that Japan and the Pacific were spiritual homes for Gene and he felt that in a former life he was born and raised there.  Looking over the spectrum of Smith’s life and work, this comment makes sense in many ways.

The exhibition also includes several pages of the final layouts of the Minamata book.  Aileen pointed out that she’d printed every image to the precise size which you can see in the book today.  This precision of “analog” printing in the publishing process is long gone in the age of high res scanning.

Aileen said when she met Gene in August 1970 he had about fifty sets of filthy bed sheets stuffed in corners, closets, and drawers all around the loft at 821 Sixth Avenue.  When sheets were dirty he bought new ones.  She said while they were living in Minamata for three years, they spent seventy percent of their money on Scotch for Gene, film, darkroom chemicals, and printing paper.  Only thirty percent was for food, clothes, transportation, or anything else.  “If I had been maybe ten years older when I met him (I was twenty, he was fifty-one) or if I’d come from a different family background” she said, “I’d have told him, ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ and never become involved.”

Aileen left Gene after four and a half years, leaving behind one immortal body of work they created together and indelible memories.  She expresses no regrets.  The tenderness she feels for him remains evident in the way she talks about him, the way she talks about his family and friends, and the way she talks about his work.  But she knows she got out at the right time.  She remarried and had a daughter who is twenty-five today.  I plan to visit them later this year during a trip to Minamata and other Pacific sites important to Smith.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing Aileen told me was that she is not an artist.  She made more than one-fourth of the photographs in their Minamata book and she became a masterful darkroom printer, learning under Gene’s painstaking tutelage.   She also wrote much of the text in the Minamata book, even some parts attributed to Gene.  But she never had any goals or desires to be an artist; not before Gene, nor after him.  For the past thirty years she has worked in environmental policy and pollution awareness.  For a short time Aileen was Gene’s partner,  “his manager,” she said, dealing with practical daily routines and Minamata project deadlines.   This is undoubtedly why the Minamata project was successful.  This is also probably why she was able to get out of the relationship cleanly.  When art holds sway, things get blurry, and letting go is hard.

Here is a really bad iPhone photograph I made of Aileen (middle left) and Elizabeth Mead (middle right) at the exhibition opening on Friday night.  They are flanked by two of Elizabeth’s students.

aileen smith in williamsburg

- Sam Stephenson


  1. Kevin Eugene Smith Said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

    I’m really intrigued by Aileen’s decision to allow a huge print of “Tomoko” to be the centerpiece of this exhibition after so many years of declining permission to reproduce it at the family’s request, no matter how worthy the cause. I’ll have to ask her about it….

  2. admin Said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 8:00 am

    I don’t think it was a conscious decision on Aileen’s part, and I guess from CCP’s point of view, as gatekeeper, an exhibition doesn’t set into motion the cautionary processes like reproductions do. It could have slipped through the cracks. I’m not sure. I’m going to write more about this weekend in the next few days. Seeing this show in this part of the world – a part of the world close to where I grew up on the other side of the Dismal Swamp in North Carolina’s coastal plains – was unusual and impressionable for me, someone who has been seeing the work of WES for many years. I’m not sure if I can put it into words. – Sam

  3. hannah weinman Said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

    I just received my MFA in ceramics(U/Iowa)a few days ago. For my final piece I made a sculpture with two images slip-painted and fired on either side. On one side is a family portrait of my mother flanked by me and my brother as infants. On the other, without even batting an eye or thinking about copyright infringements I painted the iconic image of “Tomoko”. I grew up in the 50′s, so have witnessed much human suffering visited upon many innocents. My intention was only to show the dichotomy of experience, as a reminder for gratitude and kindness.
    This sculpture is being shown as part of an MFA exhibit at the Figge Museum in Davenport IA. The curator suggested that I needed to credit Eugene Smith with the image, but this article and thread opens up other issues. I would like to include photos of this piece but it is not possible for me to copy/paste it here. I should better understand my liberty to use copyrighted material as source for other medium,and I wonder if you have an answer to this and if there is some way that I might get this forwarded on to Aileen in the hopes of receiving her permission or an address in which to forward images. Respectfully, Hannah

  4. admin Said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

    Hannah, we will make sure Aileen sees your note. Thanks for reaching out.

  5. hannah weinman Said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 11:20 pm

    oh great, thanks!