I was first introduced to the legendary works of W. Eugene Smith through the image “Tomoko in her bath.” This was a strikingly powerful image which many consider the greatest image out of the thousands of photos he took during a 3 year stay in Japan. In one of the last projects he ever undertook, he moved to Minamata, Kyushu with his family to document the environmental pollution and neurological poisoning caused by Chisso Corporation’s illegal dumping of industrial mercury into the bays.The photo shows the deformed body of a young Japanese girl being held in a bath by her mother and captures the essence of the Minamata’s mercury poisoning incident in one shocking image – and it is burnt into your mind forever.
Eugene Smith was a contradiction of sorts – a caring, compassionate human, yet ironically tough and cold toward his family. He was so consumed with his work that he had little time for them. Along with James Nachtwey, he’s considered one of the greatest American photojournalists of our time and arguably one of the best in the world. He was a perfectionist and rarely compromised on his images. He would go to incredible risks to get his shots and even quit LIFE magazine in a dispute over the biased selection of his images which incorrectly portrayed a story to how he saw it. So meticulous was he that one of the prints on Albert Schweitzer took over 5 days to finish to his satisfaction. For more on his darkroom technique and process, please read this article.
Through documenting the war in the South Pacific between the Americans and Japanese, he was a changed man.
“Saipan, I don’t believe I could’ve reach this close without my family for these people, for the luck of the United States birth. For my people could be these people , my children could be these children, I saw my daughter and my wife reflected in the torchered faces of another race. accident of birth, accident of home. each time I pressed the shutter release it was a shouted condemnation hurled with the hope that the pictures might survive through the years, with the hope that they might echo through the minds of men in the future-causing them caution and remembrance and realization.” Later, he said, “I would that my photographs might be, not the coverage of a news event, but an indictment of war-the brutal corrupting viciousness of its doing to the minds and bodies of men; and that my photographs might be a powerful emotional catalyst to the reasoning which would help this vile and criminal stupidity from beginning again.”
Two more articles on Eugene Smith worth reading :
Also, here’s part 8 (focusing on Minamata) of a 9 part series on Eugene Smith titled “Photography made difficult”: