Stephenson, Sam. “Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Before W. Eugene Smith died in 1978, he was considered to be photography’s most celebrated humanist. He was a photo-essayist at “Life” magazine in the 1940s and ’50s and established himself as “an intimate chronicler of human culture”. The photographs that he took of war and disaster, villages and metropolises, doctors and midwives changed the importance and the role of images in journalism and transformed photography for decades to come. I regret that I was living out of the country during Smith’s prime so this book is actually my first meeting with him.
Smith was born in 1918 in Wichita, Kansas, to a family that believed in the values of America and democracy and in the nobility of America and the injustice of war. He began taking pictures with his mother’s camera as a boy and continued this practice throughout his schooling. In 1937 he came to New York City where he rose quickly as a professional photographer. Even before his twenty-first birthday, he had already had hundreds of photographs in the major picture magazines of the time. It was the dramatic composition, his own hard-edged brilliance and a mastery of lighting that made his photos so special. Smith’s big moment came during World War II. When Smith went ashore with the Marines at Saipan, Guam, and Iwo Jima, his work and his sense of moral responsibility came together.
His coverage of American prisoner-of-war camps helped convince the Japanese that their fears were exaggerated, and stopped the suicide of thousands of citizens as American troops advanced.
After the war, Smith became a staff photographer at “Life” magazine, where he created many of his most famous photographs. At a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan he created haunting images of hatred, fear, and bigotry, which beautifully counterpoint the humanity of his great photo essays for the magazine. Smith also showed his skill at portraiture, shooting many of the luminaries of the time.
He left the magazine in 1954 because of “artistic differences” and devoted the rest of his life to independent projects. His last great essay, “Minamata,” depicted both the human suffering caused by mercury poisoning in a Japanese industrial port, and helped put an end to that pollution. His health began to fail and that plus a severe beating by factory thugs brought his death on October 15, 1978, he died at the age of 59 and he left only $18 in the bank and 44,000 pounds of archives. His death certificate read “stroke,” but Smith died of “everything,” from drugs and alcohol to weeklong work sessions with no sleep. He was probably very tired.
Sam Stephenson began his journey of tracing Smith’s steps and as he does he brings together traditional biography with “rhythmic digressions to revive Smith’s life and legacy”. He traveled across twenty-nine states, Japan, and the Pacific, and as he did, he gives us some fascinating profiles of some fascinating people including my friend and mentor, Tennessee Williams to whom Smith likened himself. We also read about avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, with whom he once shared a Swiss chalet; the artist Mary Frank, who was married to his friend Robert Frank; the jazz pianists Thelonious Monk and Sonny Clark, whose music was taped by Smith in his loft; and a series of obscure caregivers who helped keep Smith on his feet.
I understand that Stephenson has worked on this book for twenty years and his research and prose give us quite a look at Smith’s photography and his legacy to the world. Smith will be remembered because of his moral passion and photographic truth and that he never compromised either.