Smith, W. Eugene

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Smith, W. Eugene

W. Eugene Smith (William Eugene Smith), 1918–78, American photojournalist, b. Wichita, Kan. Smith is considered one of the principal masters of modern photojournalism. The distorted newspaper coverage of his father's suicide made him determined to seek absolute personal honesty in his own documentary work. After a short time on the staff of Newsweek, he freelanced for many leading magazines, including Life, Collier's, and Harper's Bazaar, and for the New York Times. He worked with miniature (35 mm) cameras and developed an innovative flash technique that enabled him to produce indoor photographs having the appearance of natural or lamp light. Smith's photographic record of events in the Pacific theater of World War II is ranked among the grimmest and most powerful visual indictments of war. Severely wounded in 1945, he was unable to work for two years. The first photograph he made upon recuperation (of his two children walking toward a sunlit area on a wooded path) was chosen as the final work in the "Family of Man" exhibition (Mus. of Modern Art, New York City; 1955). From 1947 to 1954 Smith worked full time for Life creating a series of major photo essays, including "Trial by Jury" (1948), "Country Doctor" (1948), "Nurse Midwife" (1951), "The Reign of Chemistry" (1953), and "A Man of Mercy" (concerning Albert Schweitzer, 1954). With a Guggenheim Fellowship he created his celebrated "Pittsburgh" essay (1956). In 1963 Smith began an intensive photographic study of Japan. While documenting the maiming effects of mercury poisoning from factory pollution on the residents of the fishing village of Minamata (1971–73), he was brutally beaten; as a result he lost his sight temporarily in 1974.

See aperture monograph, W. Eugene Smith: His Photographs and Notes (1969).

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