W. Eugene Smith: Photography Made Difficult.
Posted on January 28, 2013
I somehow managed to graduate from photojournalism school without ever hearing of one W. Eugene Smith. That, if you know anything about me, could be my most miraculous achievement. Still to this day I wonder how this was possible, but none the less, it was. Several years after graduation I was working for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, hovering somewhere between photo-intern and “guy who just keeps showing up.” I picked up a chest cold but kept working, going out on daily assignments and also working on a story about Thai-style boxing that had just come to the Valley of the Sun. I got sicker and sicker and finally had to break down and visit the warzone that is county hospital, you know, the place we go when we don’t have insurance. After taking a chest X-RAY the doctor said, “First, I don’t know how you walked in here.” “And second, if you don’t go home right now and do nothing for ten days you will die.” Now I’m not an “A” student but that soundly relatively serious to me, so I went home to my rented room in downtown Phoenix and looked for sympathy. After about eighteen minutes, this was pre-internet “entertainment” people, I was so mind numbingly bored I began to dig around in the wooden box that held up the television. Inside I found this film. In short, my chest cold changed my life.
I was alone when I found the film, slipped it innocently into the state-of-the-art, 174-pound BETA machine and sat back with a nice hot glass of Hawaiian Punch. Within minutes I had forgotten about everything I had ever learned because what this film presented was an alternative universe, a vision and power I had never truly seen before. I watched the film then I started watching it again. My housemate came home and I vomited an indecipherable mess of panic, happiness, confusion and maybe a little more panic. What this film unveiled was a level of photography and commitment, a level that went well beyond “healthy,” and a set of images that were simply the most powerful documentary images I had ever seen.
Actor Peter Reigert portrays Smith while the film slowly features over 600 of Smith’s images. And, as interesting is the dialogue which comes directly from Smith’s diaries and letters, which by the way are honest and very well done. The film is rounded out with archival footage and interviews with family, friends and industry types. Now you might be thinking this is enough to endure watching the film dissected into nine parts on You Tube, and if you asked me I would say “Yes, it is TOTALLY worth it,” but there’s more. You can buy this film. My advice, buy it. You are gonna want to see it over and over again.
Now, I know there are some folks out there who might find reason to spoof this film, and feel free to do so, but you cannot deny what you are looking at when you see those images. In my mind Gene Smith was, and is, the best documentary photographer in American history, perhaps world history. Considering his tools, how minimal they were, and his materials and lack of outlets, he did SO MUCH it is hard for me to wrap my head around. As you will see, Smith was not without his faults, and according to some he was a complete and total ass***, but again his work lives as a testament to just how good and how committed he was. A quick example. He was assigned a project on Pittsburgh, which is one of my favorites, and the project owner thought he would get about thirty images over a two-week period. After many months and 10,000 GOOD images, Smith felt he wasn’t done. His “Country Doctor” story saw Smith spend twenty-three straight days with the doctor, and his “Midwife” story saw Smith spend six-weeks straight, day and night, with his subject. You see where I’m going with this? For Smith there was nothing else. There was no end. There was no compromise. Because of this his battles with Life Magazine were legendary.
I’ll leave you with one more thing. I’m a heartless bastard at times. I’m not this way on purpose, I just have the ability to bury my emotions. My wife has seen my cry once in sixteen years(When Battlefield Earth was snubbed for an Oscar). I watched “Photography Made Difficult” again last night, when the moon was full and the air was cold and crisp. Twice I felt like I was going to cry. I feel an emotional attachment to his work that I simply don’t feel with ANYONE else. I recently saw footage of some guy clubbing a baby harp seal and was like “I wonder what’s on Oprah?” Flatline people, NOTHING. But with this film I was riveted and emotionally attached. Forget about his content, which is supreme, just look at the LIGHT and the PRINTING. And again, he isn’t working with anything remotely cutting edge even though it was probably considered so at the time. I sat watching and was reminded once again about the only things that matter. Desire, direction, time in the field, light, timing and composition. These days I go into the field with multiple formats, color AND black and white film and a “to do” list that is WAY beyond what I need. This film is something I can’t hide from, and just knowing that this work is out there is a constant reminder of just how high the bar has been set.