“An Aperture Monograph” was given to me as a gift in the early 70s. It's an extraordinary collection of W. Eugene Smith's photographic essays accompanied by powerful written excerpts from Smith's letters, articles and essays. Smith said he hoped his photographs would suggest, criticize, illuminate and illicit compassion to create strength, healing and purpose.
He succeeded. His images and stories have inspired and haunted others and myself for decades.
Smith's World War II images and the text from his letter titled Saipan, 1944 are gut wrenching. He said, “Each time I pressed the shutter release it was a shouted condemnation hurled with the hope that the picture might survive through the years, with the hope that they might echo through the minds of men in the future – causing them remembrance and realization. Know that these people of the pictures were my family – no matter how often they reflected the tortured features of another race...A baby was found with its head under a rock. It's head was lopsided and its eyes were masses of pus. Unfortunately, it was alive. We hoped that it would die.”
Another image titled Okinawa, April 19, 1945 is of a sea burial of an American sailor. Smith writes, “Whether he negotiated before as a hero or coward, his one life has been used up by his country, and he is shunted into the sea. A few brief words, a loud plash and war goes on.”
Accompanying the image of a Klu Klux Klan meeting Smith wrote, “Dear Editor, In printing the photographs of the white-gowned Klan members I ran into considerable difficulty. There were several with uncovered faces, and these faces were so vividly dark in comparison to the white-white of the gowns that it was almost impossible to keep them from appearing black. I'm terribly sorry.”
Smith's images and essay about Maude Callen, an African American Nurse Midwife in North Carolina in 1951 is deeply moving. He said in many ways photographing her was one of the most rewarding experiences. She is probably the greatest person he has been privileged to know: combining a marvelous wisdom and compassion, a strength of true humility and true pride, all given direction through her knowledge and purpose in a sheerly beautiful balance. She is perhaps the most completely fulfilled person he has ever known even though her legacy will be little marked in history. She bore near total responsibility for several thousand scattered, swamp-bound, backwoods individuals, nearly all impoverished. Smith said, “they are better off for her care, and I am a better person for her influence. If this sounds like a love letter, it is.”
The book includes photo documentaries and text on Albert Schweitzer in Africa in 1954, the sculpture of Elie Nadelman after his death in 1949, the work of a Country Doctor in 1965, migrant workers in 1953, a Spanish village in 1951 and the famous picture of the backs of his two children walking through the woods. Smith said it was his first picture after two years of recovery. He was badly injured by shell fragments in the Pacific in World War II. Smith said after multiple operations he forced his body to control the mechanics of the camera to, “speak of a gentle moment of spirited purity in contrast to the depraved savagery I had raged against with my war photographs.”
His personal approach to integrating his life into the lives of his subjects revolutionized photojournalism and is now known as the photo essay. His body of work remains one of the primary bridges between photojournalism and fine art.