William Eugene Smith dreamt of aviation, and perhaps he would have become a good pilot. But once, he took their family camera to picture the airplanes, and … And then the aircraft receded into the background. Instead of piloting the planes, W. Eugene Smith learned to take a beautiful photo of the world around him.
William Eugene Smith was born in the United States, Kansas, in 1918. His first photographic experiments brought Eugene among newspaper editors. Smith even had a job offer on a photo reporter position. And maybe it was the first of many times in his life when he didn’t accept any advice and did it his way: one day he told his family that his skill is insufficient, and his works are trash and burnt them all. He shocked relatives and close friends, as everyone who saw Eugene’s images of that period was simply amazed by his talent. His skill was recognized overseas when he was invited to study photography at the University of Notre Dame. The administration of the university went ballistic and designed a unique individual program for teaching Smith the art of photography. That’s how they treated his talent. This effort didn’t help, and William Eugene Smith decided to continue his photo career in New York, where he joined the Newsweek magazine.
Eugene also contributed to Life magazine, which paid a lot of editorial attention to photo stories. His famous ‘Country doctor’ image was created during the editorial assignment to a small town in Colorado. Smith’s photographs were in high demand, but when a photographer had to choose between creativity and financial well-being, he never doubted for a second and terminated his job contracts.
William Eugene Smith worked for Ziff-Davis Publishing when World War II broke out. In 1942 he departed to the war action area and photographed combatants until 1945. Smith learned well the critical thing of war photography: if you want your images to be good enough, you should be close enough. His Pacific photo assignment ended up with numerous excellent historic photos of the most significant battles of WW2. W Eugene Smith used his natural empathy to find the most heart-touching scenes and capture the feelings of the combatants. The brightest result is his picture ‘Soldier holding baby’, that became the first world-famous image by a photographer. He signed a new contract with Life magazine shortly before the end of WW2 but then was severely wounded. A terrible shell explosion injured his jaw and put his career on a two years pause. Smith made it through the 32 surgeries!
Nevertheless, Eugene takes a brilliant picture of “A Walk to the Paradise Garden” during the rehabilitation period. At this time, he was immersed in the warm atmosphere of love in his family .. And again, Eugene Smith used to say that this image is “just average picture” and preferred other works to it. And yet, he felt misunderstood, just like with a series of Pittsburgh reports. He couldn’t select two hundred pictures about the life of the (that he had to send according to the contract), from almost seventeen thousand of images that he made in the city. Smith had a shooting script with 25 chapters like i “Steel industry,” “Nationalities and their clubs,” ‘City Streets’ “Libraries,” “Life on the river,” “Life in parks,” and “Department stores.” W. Eugene Smith did all of those but in his way. Lorant recalled that he never saw life in Pittsburgh as grim and desperate, as in Smith’s pictures.
Pittsburgh project led the Smith family to serious financial problems. The helping hand came from the Magnum Agency agreed to collaborate with Eugene Smith even despite his conflict nature.
But money talks never mattered a lot to the Eugene Smith. His main goal was the work itself. He said this in an interview in 1957. He did not care about disagreements with the editors, in particular with the Life magazine, which he left in 1954. W Eugene Smith did not bother about the risks and dangers of some projects. For example, in 1971, he went to Japan to cover the issue of mercury poisoning in villages on the coast of Minamata Bay. His eyesight and overall health were damaged. Nevertheless, the album “Minamata”, was published in 1975 and brought the recognition from readers and experts around the world.
Photojournalist William Eugene Smith paid a high price for his unruliness. And his most famous works are rebellious too, just like their author.