W. Eugene Smith – WW2 to Minamata

Protest in Tokyo 1988

Protest in Tokyo 1988

My research on narrative has generated many disparate leads so I’ve decided to document my research on individual photographers and narrative series before trying to summarise my overall thoughts in a later post.

W. Eugene Smith’s approach to photography was, to a great extent,  a product of the Second World War. Staring out on a local newspaper in 1936 he had photographed the environmental devastation of the “Dust Bowl”, the series of droughts that severely impacted the American Midwest during The Great Depression *(1) but he rose to prominence as a war photographer covering the Pacific War including the invasions of Saipan, Guam and Okinawa. His photos of US Marines in the Pacific are reminiscent of Don McCullin’s *(3) and Philip Jones Griffiths’ *(4) much later Vietnam War photos having the same sense of the photographer being connected to the subject, not just being an impartial observer. Having read Don McCullin’s autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour *(5) it is easy to understand how close proximity to modern, close combat warfare in a harsh, unforgiving terrain would change a person’s whole outlook on life. McCullin says ” I don’t know if it taught me anything beyond a new appreciation of how terrible war can be. It certainly made me ashamed of what human begins are capable of doing to each other.”

Smith was severely injured at Okinawa and took two years to recover from his wounds. The first photograph he is said to have developed after recovering is of his two children walking hand in hand from a dark wood into sunshine The Walk to Paradise Gardens *(9). In other circumstances one might view this as a tired cliché but in the context of his wartime experiences and his recovery from wounds it is a powerful metaphor for his own state of mind, putting the darkness behind him and heading into a brighter future.

In The Genius of Photography *(6) Gerry Badger puts Smith’s post war work into the context of two opposing ideologies that prevailed in post war Europe, on one hand the reaction to the horror of a six year war was to withdraw into one’s self and soley take responsibility for one’s own actions; Badger labels this as the negative response. On the other hand the positive response was the humanist approach of heightened social concern, a response that Cartier-Bresson, Capa, W. Eugene Smith and their fellow Magnum photographers exemplify. This became known as the “concerned photographer” approach.

Smith epitomised this approach, an obsessive artist who was notoriously difficult to work with, who progressed from sentimental narratives with political undertones about “good people” such as Country Doctor (1948) *(7)  and Nurse Midwife (1951) to an in-depth study of Pittsburg (1955 to 1957) and eventually to Minamata (1975). This was a move from sentimental observer to involved crusader and the changes in his narrative style are informative.

Country Doctor is one of the best known examples of the classic Life Magazine photo story. It is considered in depth in several sources including by Michael Freeman in The Photographer’s Story *(8). Freeman says that Country Doctor is widely regraded as the first of what Life Magazine would call a “Photo Essay”, a presentation style made possible, perhaps desirable and essential by the large page, illustrated magazines that had evolved in the 1930s.

Smith and his, long suffering, photo editor, created an approach and a final layout that would become something of a template for the photo essay.

  • The opening page is a strong, scene setting shot of the doctor on his rural rounds – (1 x Photo)
  • The next four double page spreads are stories within the story, sub-plots, describing four different aspects of the doctor’s working life
    • “He must specialise in a dozen different fields” (9 x photos),
    • “An accident interrupts his leisure” (5 x photos),
    • “An old man dies at night” (3 x photos),
    • “He sets a badly dislocated elbow and amputates a gangrenous leg” (7 x photos)
  • The closing double page spread is spilt between,
    • left, a closing statement and three images, “Community absorbs most of his time” (3 x photos)
    • and, right, a strong closing shot of a tired doctor drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. (1 x photo)
  • 29 photos in total

Each double page spread is different and the photo sizes and aspects are varied within the pages and the overall story. Life Magazine found a photogenic subject and setting and Smith had no qualms about setting up individual shots. Smith said that “The majority of photographic stories require a certain amount of setting up, re-arranging and stage direction to bring pictorial and editorial coherency to pictures ….. it is done for the purpose of a better translation of the spirit of the actuality, it is completely ethical.”* (8). This statement and the fact that we know that there was a significant amount of stage direction in capturing Country Doctor seems to set the photo essay or photo story aside from what we consider to be photo journalism. Smith very much saw himself as an artist and admitted to being “constantly torn between the attitude of the conscientious journalist who is a recorder and interpreter of the facts and of the creative artist who often is necessarily at poetic odds with the literal facts.” *(6). These two statements help to reveal something about the photo story as a medium:

  • The images might be set-up and stage directed to communicate what the photograph sees as the essence of the narrative.
  • The photo story, presented in the style of Country Doctor, implies a linear continuum but, in reality the sequence of the overall story and what is included or excluded in the sub-plots may have occurred in an entirely different sequence.
  • It seems important to recognise that the photo essay or story in this form is an editorial not a news story. The stage direction, sequencing and editing are all interventions on the part of either the photographer or the picture editor.

To take this point a little further, Freeman tells us that the Denver bureau chief for Life magazine story boarded the narrative in the form of 45 images in a shooting script and many of the final shots did come from this storyboard

Following his departure from Life Magazine in 1955 Smith joined Magnum who found him an assignment to photograph Pittsburg for a book by Stefan Lorant. This was intended to be a three week job but Smith spent 2 years photographing the city, missing the deadline for Lorant’s book and turning down Magnum’s last ditch attempt to sell his series because the potential publisher would only use half the pictures Smith believed they needed to tell the story. Some of the Pittsburg photos can see on the Magnum site and they are in stark contrast to his work for Life. In Country Doctor the magazine wanted to entertain their readers with an interesting human interest story and to report on the modernisation of medicine at the local level  *(8). It was not social documentary photography in the sense that Life or Smith were campaigning for any change, nor were they drawing attention to the plight of the doctor or his patients but they did want to remind Americans that they had no need for state funded health care.

In the Pittsburg project we see Smith as the obsessive artist. According to the International Centre of Photography in New York *(11), who mounted an exhibition of 193 of the 1,200 prints Smith created from the 17,000 negatives he made in Pittsburg, Smith saw this project as the most important work of his life. It is now seen as a work of great importance documenting a large industrial American city in the middle of the twentieth century but for Smith it was an opportunity to expose the conflicts of 1950’s America. Sam Stephenson *(12), who curated the exhibition, says that Smith wanted to create a photo essay that presented images of hope and despair, poverty and affluence, and solitude and togetherness.

Given the scale of the Pittsburg project it is not surprising that only a small number of the photographs can be seen on line and there is no way, that I could find, of seeing the collection presented in a curated series. As a result, whilst it would possible to comment on the individual photographs, it is difficult to learn much from the work as a narrative. But, it might be a lesson in keeping the scope of a project contained, in my days as a project manager we used to talk of “project creep”, the way in which a project organically grows even whilst it is in progress and Pittsburg is probably the photographic equivalent. Smith had a story to tell but he included so many sub-plots that it became impossible to find a medium for the narrative to be made public. The complexity of the story and his insistence on completeness meant that the narrative ultimately fails because it resides in boxes in a storeroom. If the role of narrative within social documentary photography or the concerned photographer approach is to pave the way for social change, as it is defined by Maria Short in Context and Narrative *(10), then the photographer has failed if they cannot bring the narrative into the public’s view.

Protest in Tokyo 1988

Protest in Tokyo 1988

Near the end of Smith’s life he embarked on another major project and one that met the Maria Short definition in that it not only paved the way for change but was instrumental in achieving that change. Minamata vs. the Chisso Corporation is the story of a small fishing village and it’s population who live adjacent to a huge chemical plant on the coast of Japan. Chisso Corporation, who own the plant, had been pumping toxic waste into the seas for many years and the villagers, whose diet is based on the fish they catch, are suffering from severe mercury poisoning causing foetal brain damage and premature death in adults. The village eventually take Chisso corporation to court and win.

Smith and his wife Aileen M. Smith became aware of the controversy surrounding this case in 1971 and travelled to Japan to document the progress of the claims. Their photographs made the story international news and after winning their case the villagers and wider protest groups were quick to recognise the Smiths’ contribution.

Using the Magnum site *(13) as a reference point this is a a much more easily digested story than Pittsburg. It meets the classic criteria of a narrative having a beginning, middle and end and the way the photographs are taken and presented is informative.

  • There are a sequence of opening shots that set the scene. We see fishermen at work and the Mayor of Minamata dressed in traditional clothing with other images from their harbour festival. This establishes the village’s close relationship with the sea and puts the relationship into a context of being historical and ancient.
  • We are then introduced to Chisso who are shown as a huge, modern, industrial complex close to the shore and without pause are taken to the root of the problem with pictures of the toxic chemicals being pumped into the sea.
  • With this context established we are introduced to the victims, people deformed and dying from mercury poisoning.
  • The narrative switches to the protest movement for the first time.
  • The Central Pollution Board who heard the case is introduced to us and we are shown powerful images of victims being shown to the court and told in the captions that the victims insisted that the Board members touched them and thereby saw them as human. This theme is extended to include protesters forcing a Chisso representative to look at a victim.
  • The series concludes with a variety of pictures from the trial, protesters outside, Chisso representatives within and closes with a portrait of the the presiding judge who ruled i the village’s favour.

Magnum have displayed 35 images, a tiny number compared to the Pittsburg story, and only 6 more than Country Doctor. Each image is, in itself strong, but their power is multiplied by their relationship with the images that precede and follow them. The true power of the story lies in the series and the sequence. Smith believed the photo story depended on images that could be read as excerpts from a continuum and, if we believe the proof of the pudding is in the eating, this narrative did help to bring about social change.

Protest in Tokyo 1988

Protest in Tokyo 1988

Sources

Books

(5) McCullin, Don (1990) Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography. Vintage Edition 1997 reprint. London: Vintage

(6) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: how Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(8) Freeman, Michael (2012) The Photographer’s Story: The Art of Visual Narrative. Lewes: The Ilex Press.

(10) Short, Maria ( 2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA.

Internet

(1) Amadeo, Kimberley. The Dust Bowl. US Economy Site – http://useconomy.about.com/od/criticalssues/p/The_Dust_Bowl.htm

(2) Smith, W. Eugene. W.Eugene Smith His Photographs and Notes – Magnum Photography – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL5347YF

(3) McCullin, Don. Don McCullin Biography – Mark George Site – http://markgeorge.com/mark-george/don-mccullin/don-mccullin/

(4) Jones Griffiths, Philip. Philip Jones Griffiths Profile – Magnum Photography – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL535HON

(7) Smith, W. Eugene. W.Eugene Smith’s Landmark Photo Essay, ‘Country Doctor’ – Time Life – http://life.time.com/history/life-classic-eugene-smiths-country-doctor/#1

(9) Smith, W. Eugene. The Walk to Paradise Gardens – Masters of Photography site – http://masters-of-photography.com/S/smith/smith_children_walking_full.html

(11) Smith, W. Eugene. Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburg Photographs. International Centre of Photography – http://museum.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/dream_street/

(12) Stephenson, Sam (2011) Dream Street: Pittsburg Photographs by W. Eugene Smith – Absolute Arts site – http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2001/11/03/29317.html

(13) Smith, W. Eugene and Smith, Aileen M (1971) Minamata vs. Chisso Corporation – Magnum Photography site – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYDDWZXTR

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “W. Eugene Smith – WW2 to Minamata

  1. stevemiddlehurst Post author

    Hi Emma, thank you. I think, without having the book to hand to be able to check, that this is an “extract” from Michael Freeman’s book – The Photographer’s Story. However, I’m pretty sure that the book was written after this was posted so perhaps MF was in the process of writing it at this time. If you are interested in narrative, sequencing and layout I’d recommend the book – I have the Kindle edition – it has a lot more of this kind of analysis in it.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s