At first glance, it’s just a picture of a well-dressed man with a suitcase, somewhere in a rural America. Man looks exhausted, the clouds are expressively darkening behind, and someone may guess that photographer wanted to capture marvelous skies and landscapes instead of a doctor. So what’s so special about a W. Eugene Smith photo ‘Country doctor’?
The key is the role played by local doctors in the middle of the 20th century. Nowadays it’s hard to realize what tasks they have faced in the rural area seventy years ago. In many cases, a country doctor was the only hope of survival for locals, who couldn’t cover another hundred miles to get to the hospital. They were not physicians anymore, they were saviors.
What was wrong with local doctors?
This story starts in the middle of 1948 when W. Eugene Smith was assigned by the LIFE magazine to cover the medical practice of Colorado’s country doctor, 32 years old Dr. Ernest Ceriani. Doc skipped a well-paid position in Denver’s hospital to become the only medic for more than 2,000 souls populating the Kremmling area, Colorado (current population: 1,500). W. Eugene Smith spent 23 days with Ceriani capturing literally every step of his practice, and, sometimes, even personal life. In the days when there was no internet when even TV network wasn’t that expansive yet, this LIFE’s publication was groundbreaking. It was the only way to show how important, selfless, heroic, and exhausting was the life of the country doctor.
It’s difficult to explain how overloaded local doctors were in the 40s (well, and later on). Let’s start with the fact: in the 1940s, 41 percent of the US population stayed rural, while 83 percent of doctors were in cities. Med colleges started to grant a specialization instead of just a GP title, and it brought a higher potential income. Here’s why young doctors preferred to stick to the large hospitals, specialize in their practice, and never settle in a rural area.
American Medical Association was concerned about this tendency, and it tried to communicate the importance and demand for the GP doctors. LIFE’s publication was a result of the communication efforts of the administration. Association was looking for an attractive, charismatic country doctor for the magazine article. LIFE’s editor even guaranteed the cover story, if the hero will worth it. The Med society of Colorado pointed at Dr. Ernest Ceriani, a young, photogenic local physician. Ironically, his life story had to attract young students to focus on general practice.
The story of Dr. Ernest Ceriani
In fact, the day-to-day Dr. Ernest Ceriani’s life and practice had nothing to do with attraction and prestige.
When Smith met Dr. Ernest Ceriani, it was just one year after Ceriani settled in Kremmling and they were both of the same age. Eugene Smith followed his style during the Colorado trip, capturing every move of Dr. Ceriani in all the variety of his practice occasions, including sessions with patients and even during operations.
Nowadays, you’ll never see a reporter during your visit to your doctor. Well, it was not ok in the 40s too, and Dr. Ceriani had to introduce Smith to the patients, asking them to accept his silent presence. Smith did his best to stay unnoticed during Ceriani’s action, and doc recalled that he learned how to ignore the photographer completely very soon. He did the same trick during the famous Minamata trip too. Becoming invisible is the ultimate goal of any cameraman. The only way to catch a hero in the most natural way. Like capturing Dr. Ceriani smoking with a cup of coffee exhausted. What’s so interesting about this W. Eugene Smith photo? Ceriani just lost a patient woman and her child, both died, and he could not do anything about it. Now imagine, his emotional state, does he really want a photographer to take any pictures?
The photo story in LIFE magazine had massive success. Dr. Ceriani gained some popularity and was a frequent guest on radio shows. He had multiple job offers from the leading hospitals but decided to devote himself to serving the people of Kremmling. Eugene Smith proved himself as a first-class reporter, who was telling the whole story of people in focus, just like another LIFE’s photographer, Margaret Bourke-White, did. Smith never accepted any compliments for his images, always thinking of weak spots of every picture. He wasn’t happy about the page design that LIFE magazine did in the Ceriani’s story. It was a signature Smith’s move, always looking for a conflict with an editor about the way his images were used. He was disappointed with the order in which photos were published, stressing on fact that the sequence is as important as photos themselves.
W. Eugene Smith insisted to publish 300 out of his 2898 photos brought from Kremmling. Editor of Life magazine took just 30.
Later, the ‘Country doctor’ photo appeared in the TOP 100 most influential images in human history.