PRINT March 1967



W. Eugene Smith, San Francisco Museum of Art: Occasionally we hear on the radio an advertisement for a record with a snappy title like Gems from the Verdi Operas, and we realize that we will be served up only the nice warm chestnuts and not have to listen to all that dreary, dull connecting stuff that takes up so much of our time and merely serves to separate the jolly tunes that we really pay our money to hear. The twenty-five-print traveling show of the photographs of W. Eugene Smith circulated by George Eastman House leaves us with some of the same queasy dissatisfaction. The editor has been conscientious in showing some of the highlights from a number of Smith’s essays. Yet he has given us no concept of the scope and message of the essay as a whole.

To change the analogy abruptly, in photojournalism, each photograph equals a paragraph in a story. The paragraph may be well-written. It may even stand by itself containing a whole thought. But it is by its nature incomplete, and it is as unfair to ask us to judge a photographer’s story by isolated prints as it is to ask us to judge a writer’s story by isolated paragraphs. This is particularly true with Eugene Smith, who has more than once resigned from Life because he demanded control over the editing and layout of his work—unthinkable in such an editor-produced confection as Life. It is unpleasant to speculate about what Smith thinks of the current show.

The photographs were made between 1944 and 1962, and were selected from such essays as Marines at Saipan, 1944; Spanish Village, 1951: Man of Mercy (Albert Schweitzer in Africa), 1954; Pittsburgh, 1955–57; and Japan, 1962. There are also portraits of Wanda Landowska, 1951, and Charlie Chaplin on the set of Limelight, 1952; and the photograph of Smith’s two children walking into a patch of sunlight, A Walk through a Paradise Garden, 1946. With few exceptions—a print showing fingers clinging to the bars of a fence from Man of Mercy is ambiguous—they are self-sufficient images that the viewer understands easily without captions.

Smith habitually frames people with their environments, and shows how they and the environment are interrelated. Wanda Landowska’s eyes as she studies her music are framed by sheet music, books, and a slip-covered chair. Chaplin sleeps on a film set, surrounded by props and light stands. Three men from the Welsh miners series, 1951, rear strong individual faces against a background of identical houses. A man carrying a child from the Japan series is shown against a filmy, very Japanese landscape.

The function of each print within the story has, however, been sacrificed by selecting prints out of context. From the Pittsburgh series, we see skyscrapers reflecting light against a dark sky. Steel mills fill the sky with smoke, but through open patches we see here a house, there a church. We see Dream Street, a street sign flanked by a mailbox and an old Studebaker, a kind of wry seeing reminiscent of Elliot Erwitt. There is a thoughtful girl at a pet show. She wears a cardboard imitation feather headdress—a gift of the Knights Life Insurance Company; an arm band—a gift of the Ken-L-Ration Company, and a pet show entrant’s ribbon, and she stares broodingly past the bird she is holding, as if overcome by excitement and advertising. Smith’s treatment of the Pittsburgh story is thus filmic—some photographs establish the background, others show us the characters within their setting. Each photograph is splendidly seen. Smith’s eye is sure, and he has a wonderful grasp of the significance of an image. Yet the show would have more meaning if we were to see a whole series and how each photograph pertains to it. Eastman House could have made a fairer representation of Smith’s photographs by presenting one essay in its entirety.

Philip Hyde; Canessa Gallery, San Francisco: The western landscape has magnetized photographers—dedicated visionary and unseeing tourist alike—since the country was first explored. The early survey parties brought photographers—among them, William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan—to interpret the landscape, and the photographs of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston have continued the tradition. Adam’s photographs are well known through the Sierra Club publications, and he has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute and in Yosemite, and a devoted Edwardian cult has effected the canonization of St. Edward. Today, the influences of Adams and Weston are all-pervasive, and photographers with a personal view of the western scene are rare indeed.

Philip Hyde, who studied with Adams, Weston, and Minor White, and who, like Adams, is a photographer from the Sierra Club stable, shows several prints which are indistinguishable from Adams. If we were handed one of them unsigned, we would be unable to attribute it with certainty—yet the show as a whole indicates a photographer with a very different eye and a very different emphasis. Hyde’s prints have a fine lyrical design that occasionally makes Adams look stodgy.

He is interested in repetitions—reflections and duplications of form. Some of his prints explore the patterns of rocks or mountains reflected in lakes, or plants and their shadows on rocks. Alders reflected, Russian Gulch State Park (used as end papers in the Sierra Club book, The Last Redwoods) is a remarkable photographic recognition of the fracturing of light of the Impressionists and reminds us of Monet. Bristlecone pine, Wheeler Park Cirque, Nevada explores the subtle dichotomy of a tree trunk branching near its base. Hyde balances skillfully on his personal line between realism and abstraction. If we examine an image that is powerfully designed—for example, Ice, Wing Lake, North Cascades, Washington—we see that Hyde is also concentrating on the completely real bubbling places where the ice is melting.

Hyde’s prints are well seen and well made, and the display is enhanced by natural objects—rocks, scarred stumps, wind-blown manzanita branches—collected and arranged by Carl Stephens.

The strength of Hyde’s personal vision may be assessed by comparing his prints with the work of two other photographers who are currently exhibiting, Jack Cakebread at the Focus Gallery, and Chauncy Hare at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Cake-bread, who also studied with Adams, has photographed the Adams landscape, the rugged shore, the magnificent Sierra, yet his sense of design is so pedestrian that his prints can best be described as Adams minus the glory. Hare has made a number of large-camera views of the California Coast Ranges of such distressing similarity that the viewer who does not love that country will be bored, while the viewer who does will wonder why Hare saw so little. In the opposite corridor, the Museum has mounted a small unscheduled exhibit of the prints of Edward Weston, and some of these prints show the same type of landscape. It seems a cruel joke.

Margery Mann