W. Eugene Smith: Father of the Photo Essay


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Last week, I talked about the photo essay “Country Doctor” by W. Eugene Smith, and today I would like to focus more on his life and photography in general.

William Eugene Smith has been described as “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay.” He shot photo projects so large that they cannot be displayed in any museum. Let’s take a closer look at this brilliant photographer.

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W. Eugene Smith in his studio. Photo: Leslie Teicholz, 1970-1971 #ICPCollections

A post shared by Int'l Center of Photography (@icp) on Sep 16, 2017 at 5:48pm PDT

William Eugene Smith was born in Kansas in 1918. He was given his first camera at the age of 9 after he wanted to photograph airplanes. By the age of 15, he was already published in local newspapers.

Sadly, his father committed suicide the same year Smith graduated from high school. When the local news twisted the story about his father’s death, it inspired him to start his photojournalist career. This event shaped him and his standards for the rest of his life.

Available light is any damn light that is available! —W. Eugene Smith
When he moved to New York, he worked for several magazines, including Life. He was known to be a perfectionist and stubborn, and he was even fired from Newsweek because he refused to stop using his 35mm Contax in favor of large-format negatives.

When we talk about his work, it’s very hard to present his pictures in a complete way. He typically shot what we would today call a photo essay: when he was assigned to cover a story, he would create tens of thousands of pictures to support it. So even though I know it is not possible to cover every event in his life, I have picked some assignments that I think will illustrate his photography.

One of the first assignments Smith took was a photojournalistic profile of Maude E. Callen, a trained nurse and midwife in South Carolina. Smith photographed her for six weeks during her work taking care of her patients.

Deeply moved by her work he wrote:

No story could translate justly the life depth of this wonderful, patient, directional woman who is my subject — and I love her, do love her with a respect I hold for almost no one. Humble, I am in the presence of this simple, complex, positive, greatness; on end on in herself appointed rounds beyond paid-for duty.

After that, American readers actually donated money to build her clinic in South Carolina.

Country Doctor

I discussed this photo essay in my previous article. If you would like to find out more about this topic, you can also watch this previous video:


In 1954, Smith resigned from Life magazine, mostly because of their restrictions, and joined Magnum Photos as an associate. His next project was actually to photography Pittsburgh for picture editor Stefan Lorant’s pictorial history of the city.

W. Eugene Smith was born on this day 99 years ago. #eugenesmithfund #weugenesmith #eugenesmith #genesmith
Pittsburgh, 1955-56 © Heirs of W. Eugene Smith pic.twitter.com/W9VIyisWFZ

— W. Eugene Smith Fund (@EugeneSmithFund) December 30, 2017

The project that was supposed to take three weeks turned into a three-year project with more than 17,000 images. The book was eventually published as Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City, and Lorant used 64 images taken by Smith.

When looking at his photos, you can see contrasts he emphasized: water and land, steel and grass, rich and poor. Smith seemed to be little conflicted when later judging this project. He saw it as a failure, as it was unfinished, but also as the finest set of photographs he had ever produced.

Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft project is a series of recordings and photographs taken by Smith from 1957 to 1965 at a Manhattan loft. It contains approximately 4,000 hours of recordings and almost 40,000 photographs.

The cataloging and preserving of his work are directed by Sam Stephenson at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in cooperation with the Center for Creative Photography.

Japan and Minamata

In 1971, Smith and his wife Aileen stayed in a small fishing village for three years. He helped to uncover the story of Minamata disease, a tragedy caused by mercury poisoning caused by the Chisso factory, which was spoiling water sources with heavy metals, resulting in children being born with disabilities. PHOTO: The story was published by several magazines and newspapers after Smith and his wife were attacked by Chisso employees and almost did not survive the attack.

“Minamata” was Smith’s last big photo essay. After Japan, he first returned back to New York, and soon after that to Arizona to teach at the University of Arizona. However, he suffered several strokes and died in 1978.

About the author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, reviewer, and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kaninsky runs the channel All About Street Photography. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.