Sometimes, failure is the greatest success.
That is the key to the secular sainthood of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. He aspired to such purity of esthetic and moral vision, that, in a way, if he had succeeded, it would only have proved to himself that his sights had been set too low.
Smith is the patron saint of photojournalists. During his stint as a Life magazine photographer in the 1940s and ’50s, his picture essays — of World War II, an American country doctor, a nurse midwife and a Spanish village, among others — made his reputation as not only a fine journalist but also a photographic stylist. A Gene Smith photograph had a look all its own.
Smith’s reputation as saint began in 1954, when he quit Life after a dispute over the editorial layout for a story he did on Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Smith had photographed Schweitzer in the context of his hospital at Lambarene in what was then French Equatorial Africa and concentrated on the difficulties of providing health care in the Third World. Life’s editors trimmed the essay back and made Schweitzer into a one-dimensional white hero among the natives.
From Smith’s point of view, it would be as if the editors had taken an essay of emotional depth and turned it into an Entertainment Tonight sound bite.
It wasn’t the first time Smith had fought with his editors (in fact, he had quit the magazine once before), but the Schweitzer imbroglio caused him to leave the magazine permanently. Depending on whether you were a photographer or an editor, Smith’s single-minded insistence on the integrity of his work made him a saint or a crybaby prima donna.
Time has come down on Smith’s side. No one remembers the editors’ names now.
(Smith couldn’t stand even to edit himself. When he gave his archives to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz., before his death in 1978, the negatives, prints, letters and notes weighed 22 tons. He could never bring himself to throw anything away — included in the archives is laundry.)
There are other great photojournalists, but there is no one like Smith.
His images from World War II were so uncompromising, half the pictures he made were censored by the government as too grisly and not heroic enough for public consumption.
“I would that my photographs might be, not the coverage of a news event, but an indictment of war,” he wrote, “the brutal corrupting viciousness of its doing to the minds and bodies of men.”
But what distinguishes his work is quite apart from journalism. Now that we have the perspective of time, we can see that Smith wasn’t really a journalist at all; he was an artist. His success is not that of showing us events, but of showing us his own mental and emotional insides. They were not bright and happy insides.
The first thing you notice about the mass of Smith’s work is its darkness. Almost all the photographs are predominantly black. The standard Smith photograph shows a working face lighted in the darkness.
The darkness is universal and threatening, and against it, Smith pits his hero, always a working man. It matters not what else the man may be, Smith pictures him at work and at work with an intensity that shows the hero’s effort alone holding back the perimeters of darkness, whether he is a surgeon saving a baby or a mourner at work watching a corpse.
The blacks and whites of the photos take on symbolic meaning.
Smith’s world was one of alienation, darkness, maimed and diseased people, back-busting labor, sweat, hardship and fear — but against it Smith put heroism of the common man trying to make a difference.
For Smith, every man was a working man, and the working man became Everyman. Smith could give a symphony musician a blue collar. In one photo, soloist Gregor Piatagorsky takes a drag on a cigarette and looks like Edward R. Murrow holding a cello. In another, Igor Stravinsky in short sleeves and pullover works out a point of interpretation with a violinist. This preoccupation with labor may reflect the influence of the WPA photographers of the Depression.
There are machines, tools and human flesh, often mangled by disease or accident. His subjects are constantly ”fronting the essential facts of life,” as Thoreau put it. Never are any of the people in a Smith photograph relaxed. They are always in rapt contemplation or action. Intensity beams from their faces — the kind of blade-edged intensity most people feel uncomfortable with and cannot live with. It is a grim but heroic world.
One wonders how Smith ever survived at Life, with its celebration of middle-class optimism. Smith’s mythology is more Nordic. One is sure the darkness eventually will win.
People are apt to be alone in his photos. When they are not alone, they don’t interact with each other, instead staring in different directions. And when they do interact, they do not do so with each other, but through a common task, a dying patient, a dead relative. The task is the unifying element of Smith’s world.
One is struck by the extent to which Smith’s own neuroses and anxieties turned the world into darkness. Smith was a great artist, not merely a photojournalist, because of the myth he made of the world. In the guise of presenting fact, he presented a version of truth.
Smith had a powerful if idiosyncratic style. He was not a stylish photographer in the ordinary sense — there is little that is self-consciously visual or artistic in Smith. Irving Penn and Richard Avedon are stylish photographers. Smith was interested in truth, not style.
Yet his design is striking, beautiful, considering how uninvolved Smith was in making things look good.
The “truth” was his passion, a truth he never understood as subjective. Like a good Calvinist, he was utterly convinced that his vision presented the world as it is. And it is that unwavering belief that makes his photos so compelling. They convince us that Smith’s personal vision was, and is, the truth.
There is no humor in Smith; saints rarely crack jokes. No wit, no irony. He believed in the world he created. He could not have irony about that. That is why when he tried to create a purposely optimistic photo, as in Walking to Paradise Garden, a picture of his two children walking into the light of a break in the woods, the result was mawkish and sentimental.
Smith’s strengths are not found in such uncharacteristic photographs. Smith’s strengths are found in his illumination of darkness.
The darkness is all enveloping and irreducible. It is no surprise then, that he saw his work rather like that of Sisyphus, doomed to failure.
Therefore, his greatest failure is also his greatest success: The images he made as a “portrait” of Pittsburgh in 1955-57. The photographs make a kind of composite picture of place, an attempt to present the complexities and contradictions of the Iron City, leaving nothing out.
The series has seldom been shown separately as a group since Smith threw his hands up on the project 55 years ago, having failed to finish it to his strict satisfaction.
The story of the Pittsburgh failure — and its ultimate success — parallels almost everything in Smith’s life.
He was nearly killed on Okinawa in 1945 when a shell tore through his skull. It took two years of rehabilitation and plastic surgery before he could resume his existence.
Then, he produced some of the signature photo-essays in Life, including stories on Schweitzer, a country doctor, a black midwife and a Spanish village under the Franco regime.
But each photo essay was a failure in Smith’s mind, because photo-editors altered his conception of the pictures.
No doubt, Smith was a difficult man to work with, and no doubt, he was his own worst enemy. He knew no motivation except truthtelling — and that meant the truth as he knew it, told the way he envisioned it being told.
“I cannot accept many of the conditions common within journalism without tremendous self-dishonesty and without it being a grave breach of the responsibilities, the moral obligations within journalism, as I have determined them for myself,” he wrote about his Life magazine resignation.
Yet, he needed to work. He had a wife and family to support. Even so, the inner demons refused to let him take a simple assignment and complete it simply. He was incapable of being a hack.
In 1955, he was hired to illustrate a book about Pittsburgh’s bicentennial. He was supposed to provide the 50 or so pictures that would accompany the text. It was an assignment that should have lasted less than two weeks. He wound up working more than three years and taking something like 17,000 negatives.
No wonder, when he taught a course at the New School for Social Research in New York, it was called “Photography Made Difficult.”
His marriage did not survive his obsessive drive to tell truth.
The Pittsburgh photographs are the perfect introduction to Smith’s work. Instead of objective reportage, they are profoundly metaphorical. Smith felt the world a dark, cold, even malevolent place, softened only briefly and minutely by the warmth and light of human love and caring.
The pictures obsessively show a small point of light in a dark, obscure background. Whether it is the brilliantly lit face of an millworker in a black universe, or the small touch of a bride’s hands spot-lit in a dark room, they pound home Smith’s personal world view.
When he died, in Tucson, in 1978, he was the closest thing photojournalists had to a saint, and his work is a constant reminder of what the highest goals of the profession should be.
He may have been a pain in the ass to work with, but he created a deeply moving body of work, one it is nearly impossible to be indifferent to.