“I’ve never made any picture, good or bad, without paying for it in emotional turmoil” – W. Eugene Smith
Stained and rust-pitted, an old metal locker stands empty in a darkened back room at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.
The locker – once forgotten and abandoned – along with several trailer truck loads of treasure and detritus (22 tons in all) has travelled over 2400 miles to its’ final resting place.
These are the contents of a photographer’s workspace.
W. Eugene Smith’s workspace at 821 Sixth Avenue, NY, NY. to be exact
Among the papers, story outlines and manuscripts crossed through with a red china marker, negatives, prints and jazz recordings are “glimpses“.
Glimpses of inferiority given to madness and fueled by amphetamines and alcohol.
A glimpse of momentary anguish is scrawled on Smith’s locker door in unsteady fading black marker.
It reads: “DEAREST PEOPLE – I LOVE YOU ALL, I REALLY DO, AND THAT MAKES IT ALL THE MORE HORRIFYING THAT I HAVE DRAGGED YOU INTO THIS EXCRUTIATING (sic) SITUATION MADE BRUTAL BY MY OWN INCOMPETENCE (signed) INCENELY (sic) THE TORTURE MASTER OF FOLLY PLACE”.
Why the rage? Why the inferiority? Smith was one of – if not the – most celebrated documentary photographers of the time.
Early in Smith’s photojournalistic career he wrote “My station in life is to capture the action of life, the life of the world, it’s humor, it’s tragedy. In other words, life as it is. A true picture, unposed and real.”
This statement sounds fairly benign, but to to a perfectionist…no, the obsessive, the statement could be a all-consuming burden.
Smith possessed an anguishing and obsessive dedication to story – so persistent that few – perhaps none of his essays ever had an end – at least in his own mind.
Many know the story of Smith’s “Pittsburgh” essay…but it bears a short retelling.
In 1955, Smith had just resigned from the staff at LIFE Magazine over “creative differences”.
Shortly after leaving the magazine, Smith joined the photo cooperative MAGNUM and was commissioned to travel to Pittsburgh to produce one hundred photographs over a period of three weeks. The effort was to illustrate a book celebrating the city’s bicentennial.
Three weeks, one hundred pictures.
Smith visited the Pennsylvania steel town and went to work.
When the three weeks ended, Smith didn’t quit.
He refused to stop his documentation feeling that he had seized on a microcosm of post World War II America.
This was 1955. The same year that Robert Frank began his crisscross of the United States to learn about and document America in his landmark book “The Americans”.
Now this is mere speculation on my part, but did Frank’s new project spur Smith on to drill in to his assignment at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela?
I don’t know that the two photographers even knew each other, but the timing regarding the beginning of two epic projects that were to define America – is to me – extremely coincidental.
Smith’s three week assignment grew to a year and more. In that period over 17,000 photographs were created.
Still, he said, the project was unfinished – but finances prompted a stopping point.
Was it competition (with Frank), dedication or obsession?
The Pittsburgh story was merely one example of an extremely complex – and sometimes erratic – life and career of a genius visual documentarian.
Looking back at his life’s work, Smith photographed the gamut of human emotion – “joy” (birth as in “Country Doctor” 1948) , “mercy” (as in Dr. Albert Schweitzer “A Man of Mercy” 1954) , both “greed” and “sorrow” (as in “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath” 1971) “violence” and “salvation” (as in “Marines Blowing up a Japanese Cave” and “An American Soldier Tends to a Wounded Infant on Saipan”).
I’ll ask you if I’m far from wrong in thinking that perhaps Smith became so immersed in his stories that he took on some of the qualities of his subjects and wore them like an overcoat. A heavy, burdensome overcoat.
Perhaps the visuals, the interactions, the stresses all combined with his addictions to create an emotional stew – that in one degree or another is known by many photojournalists both in Smith’s day and the present.
I’ll submit that I think that W. Eugene Smith became his stories and his stories became his madness.
I think I’m beginning to understand the scrawlings on the locker door.