At the tender age of 15, W. Eugene Smith (*1918) took his first pictures and started to occasionally work for two local newspapers, The Wichita Eagle and The Wichita Beacon. In 1936, his father killed himself for economic reasons – he was currently studying photography at the Notre-Dame-University in South Bend, Indiana at the time and planned to work for the Newsweek magazine and the Black Star agency.
He was by no means a conformist – hence, he disagreed with the prominent opinion at Life Magazine, that the photographer's work was over and done with when the negatives were finished.
During the Second World War, he photographed for the Ziff Davis Publishing Company. In March 1944 in New York, he duly noted that almost half of his pictures were subjected to censorship, he quit his job and returned to Life Magazine.
After the war, which he managed to survive unscathed, he produced articles for Life Magazine such as ‘Country Doctor’ (1948), ‘Spanish Village’ (1950) and his famous kids photographs ‘Walk to Paradise Garden’. To many, Smith had been an inspiration, but also known for feverishly working on a single picture for days on end, not caring who or what was waiting for him.
His obsession with photography began to cause severe damage to his private life. He spent more and more time in his studio and less time at home with his family. In September 1950, completely exhausted by his work, Smith was arrested for wandering the streets surrounding his studio, only dressed in boxer shorts and clearly disorientated.
Smith's excessive behaviour was not limited to his photography – his record collection included about 25,000 albums. By consuming immense sums of alcohol and taking amphetamines, he was able to work through three or four days without taking a break, only to collapse in exhaustion afterwards.
To retain his artistic freedom, Smith joined the famous photographers' agency Magnum Photos in 1955 and began working on a comprehensive documentary about Pittsburgh and its ironworks. He felt the distinct urge to create a magnum opus, so that the Life editors would repent the end of their collaboration.
Yet, Smith did not manage to create a version of his Pittsburgh essay that would please his ambition. In 1958, Smith left Magnum to dedicate his time to his own interest, independent of agencies or deadlines. The result was a documentary on the Minamata-disease that was caused due to chemical company Chisso disposing of their sewage by dumping it into public water reserves. The documentary was created during one of his many Japan travels where he also met his second wife, Aileen from Japan.
As a result of this manmade natural disaster, many new born babies were deformed. The public campaigning, supported by Smith's photographs, finally ended with Chisso being dragged into court. The book 'A Warning to The World . . . Minamata' became a bestseller in 1972 and the world’s most important magazines published Smith's photographs. During this project, Smith was beaten up by the factory security forces. The punches, especially those targeting the eyes resulted in Smith losing eyesight by the day and he withdraw from the public sphere eventually.
From 1957 to 1965, Smith spent most of his time in a New York loft on Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue). He created approximately 40,000 single shots during that time, by creating portraits of the resident jazz musicians such as Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Roland Kirk, Zoot Sims, Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman as well as photographing the street outside his window.
He documented the work atmosphere in the loft by creating 1,740 audiotapes with about 4,000 hours of material that was not found until his death as part of his estate in 1998. Both films and tapes were assessed by Sam Stephenson, lecturer for Documentary Studies at the Duke University over the course of 12 years of archive work, featured in an exhibition and published in the book 'The Jazz Loft Project' in 2009.
At 57 years of age, Smith suffered from Diabetes. Liver cirrhosis, high blood pressure, chronic vein compression, stasis dermatitis, cardiovascular diseases and arterial disease of the coronary vessels of his enlarged heart, stated his doctor. He died in 1978, only 59 years old, bitter and poor, from the effects of a heart attack that was caused by his alcohol and drug consumption. His estate is held by the ‘Center for Creative Photography’ at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
The 'W.Eugene Smith – Photographs. A retrospective' exhibition features all the works that Smith suggested to be included in documentaries but were excluded for various reasons. The public now has the opportunity to marvel at photography essays as Smith's intended them to be, without any intrusion by eventual editors.
We thoroughly recommend the book by Kehrer Verlag.
W. Eugene Smith - Photographs
25. September – 27. November 2011
Niederkirchnerstraße 7 | corner of Stresemannstr. 110
W. Eugene Smith
First German Issue
Authors: Britt Salvesen, Enrica Vigano, W. Eugene Smith
Hardcover with protective envelope
27x34cm, 240 Pages
175 B/W images., German