W. Eugene Smith

A college drop-out, Smith first made his name as a fearless and sensitive photographer in the Pacific theater of WWII. He was almost killed by a bomb on the frontlines in Okinawa in 1945 at age twenty-six. After two years of rehabilitation the first image he made, legend has it, was The Walk to Paradise Garden, named after a movement in a Delius opera. The picture depicts his two young children toddling through a dark, wooded path into an opening of light. It was a signature image of post-Depression, post-War America. Edward Steichen chose it to close his epochal 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition and book, Family of Man. After the war Smith became one of Life magazine’s most celebrated staff photographers, the “master of the photographic essay.” He was a cross between Norman Rockwell and Vincent van Gogh, juggling comfort and passion, sentiment and fever, hope and fear. These were tensions he felt within himself and saw everywhere around him, “equilibriums of paradox,” he said. Not surprisingly, he was manic-depressive (Smith’s father had committed suicide when young Eugene was seventeen) and his addictions alcohol and amphetamines compounded the situation.

Smith’s career at Life was riddled with epic (everything he did was epic, like Quixote) editorial battles. Each published essay – some the most iconic in the history of photo-journalism, “Country Doctor” (1948), “Spanish Village” (1951) and “Nurse Midwife” (1951), to name a few – was preceded by tears and tantrums, threats to quit the magazine, even threats of suicide. But praise and adulation always followed - from critics, fellow photographers, and the general public - and the relationship stumbled forward. Life’s weekly circulation was nine million (many more people saw it in waiting rooms, barber shops, and libraries in an America with a population of 130 million at mid-century) and its impact will never be matched by a commercial magazine again. It was the primary source of visual imagery for the country before television. Smith became a household name. He set new standards for artistic control of photography and he was revered for combating the forces at Life. Smith fed off his reputation and fueled it. His legend was complete: the compassionate photographer as indomitable hero.  

Smith finally quit life in early 1955 at age thirty-six, after a brutal fight over the lay-out of his essay on Albert Schweitzer in equatorial Africa (“Man of Mercy”). He joined the agency, Magnum, and embarked on two quixotic projects that consumed a decade, almost broke the agency, ruined his family, and left him ostracized from the photography world. The first project began as a three-week assignment to make one-hundred photographs for a book commemorating Pittsburgh’s bicentennial. Smith ultimately shot 22,000 photographs in the city and spent four years – he received back-to-back Guggenheim fellowships – creating an essay influenced by Beethoven, Rembrandt, and Joyce, among others. In the middle of his Pittsburgh obsessions Smith moved out of the home he shared in Croton-on-Hudson with his wife, four children, and a live-in housekeeper and her daughter, and into a dilapidated loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue, between 28th and 29th, in Manhattan’s old wholesale flower district. The building was an after-hours haunt of jazz musicians. He wired the building from the sidewalk to the fifth floor and made approximately 4,000 hours of astonishing audio recordings and 40,000 photographs between 1957 and 1965.  

Amid historic recordings of the likes of Thelonious Monk, Steve Reich, Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, and Alice Coltrane, Smith documented obscure figures otherwise lost to oblivion. He recorded flawed talents, posers, hunch backs, schizophrenics, heroin addicts, thieves, pimps, prostitutes, neighborhood cops, photography students, and teen runaways. It is a Dickensian tableau. He added late-night Long John Nebel radio programs about UFO’s and aliens; MLK and JFK on the radio; Walter Cronkite reading Cold War news; Shakespeare and Beckett plays on TV; Lenny Bruce doing stand-up comedy; Jason Robards reading Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-up”; James Baldwin, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Eudora Welty in interviews. There is also street noise, cat’s meowing, random loft dialogues and people walking up and down the stairs, among many other oddities. 

Smith was evicted from 821 Sixth Avenue in 1971 as he was preparing to travel to Japan with his second wife, Aileen Sprague Smith, a Japanese-American. Smith moved into another loft on 23rd Street formerly occupied by his friend, photographer Harold Feinstein (who also preceded Smith on the fourth floor of 821). In Japan Eugene and Aileen commenced a photographic and literary study of the devastating effects of corporate pollution in the fishing village of Minamata. The resulting book would bring Smith the greatest acclaim of his career at a time when his body was starting to wear out. He was beaten by thugs in Minamata, adding to problems from a lifetime of extending his mental and physical capacities beyond healthy limits. 

In 1978, aided by his friends such as Ansel Adams, John Morris, and Jim Hughes, Smith agreed to move his archive to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. He accepted a teaching job there, too. Two 18-wheel trucks packed with 22 tons of Smith’s material rolled from NYC to Tucson. Not long after he arrived he had a series of strokes and died at age 59, his body looking two or three decades older.   




W. Eugene Smith

Additional Information

Listen to Sara Fishko's Jazz Loft Project Radio Series segment focusing on Smith here.

Sam Stephenson on researching Smith's life, Gene Smith's Sink, in A Public Space magazine.