W. Eugene Smith and the Photographic Essay
W. Eugene Smithpracticed his photographic trade in an era when mass circulation magazines were growing, the era before mass television. Publications such as Life Magazine, Fortune and Esquire allowed a mass audience to see the world. In this context, Smith set the standard by which the classic photo-story is measured.
Specifically, Life Magazine offered direct access to an audience of 24 million people across America.
“See the world, to witness great events, to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud”. Life Magazine.
Employed by Life, Smith had a distinct style of work. Smith really got to know the people. He lived with them. He shared their life with them. He wanted to convey a reality. A truth.
In the project ‘Country Doctor‘ (photo essay of the daily life of a country doctor) Smith was constrained by the constraints set by Life Magazine. They had already identified the town and interviewed for the American Country Doctor. The story was already scripted; a done deal.
Smith, and other photographers at the time, disliked this process. Seen merely as the individual to click the shutter button, many rebelled later down the line, including Smith who immersed himself in this particular project. He spent from dusk until dawn with the doctor, photographing both his public life and private life. He produced over 2,000 negatives in 4 weeks; twice as long as Life wanted. Smith was unable to find the finish line. With such an immersive technique, how long does it take? When do you finally get the story? The truth.
The creative tension between Life and Smith reached a tipping point. Smith just wasn’t in control of his work. Arguments broke out and he resigned, leaving behind a lucrative financial contract.
In 1955 he joined Magnum to undertake freelance work. His first commission was the Pittsburgh project. Following his immersive technique, he spent the first four weeks wandering the City, reading its history. The commission was designed to be completed in two weeks. Smith became a man obsessed – a tragic story.
Magnum were worried and sent money to keep Smith alive. He became a drain. A drain on his family and a drain on Magnum. But his obsession to create ‘the best, most complete photo story’ continued. A passion, an obsession, poverty, a broken and disturbed man who believed that if he just worked harder, he would get it.
People who did see the work, loved it. There was a massive demand but he didn’t want anyone to have control of it. In the end, he sold the work very cheaply ($1,800) to a niche magazine. He regretted it.