New York

Eugene Smith

Witkin Gallery

Eugene Smith’s photography asks to be valued above all for the sincerity of its sentiments, and it is around that quality that his advocates rally. His work has evolved in reaction against the strictures of an earlier era of magazine journalism. Smith, himself a journalist for many years, is famous for contentiously repudiating the theatricality, sensationalism and voyeurism that his editors seem to have demanded of him, and that were indeed the dark underpinnings of the lucid views on our culture the great magazines proposed to be. In reaction, Smith offers heartfelt sympathy with, and humility before, the plight of the weak and the acts of the great.

His characters are generally great surgeons, backwoods doctors and nurses, dreadfully injured or crippled people, little children, actors, musicians and soldiers, workers, peasants and dictators, and humanists of mixed professions. Smith’s work hopes that, in demonstrating sincere empathy for most of these figures, it will transcend its own rhetorical weaknesses, its helpless bondage to a violent civilization, and the ultimate naiveté of its own sentiments. It asks us to believe that the honest expression of an emotion is more important than the content of it—that, when honestly and unabashedly expressed, it doesn’t matter if a certain feeling is fantastic, simplistic or irrelevant. Sadly, his work seems anachronistic, and might well have seemed so even if it had been made at the turn of the century rather than in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

Smith’s beliefs themselves, the causes he espouses, his righteous empathy and vigorous anger, are not things that the apathetic and cynical of my generation should presume to deride. The shortcoming of Smith’s work is not that it embraces these sentiments as its subject, but that it fails to argue them persuasively. It betrays none of the irony or the vicissitudes of self-doubt that the credible moralist of our age must show if he is to accomplish his transit between the violent quotidian and the ideal. (In comparison, consider James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, where we are able to identify with the author’s indignation and ecstasy precisely by virtue of his continual examination of his right and ability to assume the evangelical role.)

Smith’s work expects us to grow warm before a black child’s smile, to anger at Papa Doc Duval with pistols and Bible arrayed on his desk, to feel celestial rage at the sight of a victim of mercury poisoning. Smith has missed the point; he takes our spontaneous response for granted. The crucial issue of our time is not whether we should feel moral passion over this or that outrage, but how we are to summon up moral feeling at all. Indeed, cynicism, apathy, alienation and ambiguity do not exist at all in the world of Smith’s pictures. In hoping to evade these things, to shoot us full of feeling by the pathos of his subjects alone, Smith too often succumbs to a theatricality that is merely the obverse of that which the magazines he served were built on. And this theatricality consists in heroicizing or making pitiful the protagonists of Smith’s pictures; it leaves out any sense of moral struggle, decision or fate. The photographs are heavily reliant on stark chiaroscuro, on the isolation of subjects from their contexts and on easy resurrections of old symbols in contemporary guises, as with Tomoko in her Bath, a late rendition of the Pietà. The majority of Smith’s pictures fail by denying us a plausible arbiter’s persona into which we can step, and leaving us a mute audience before an array of one-dimensional heroes.

In his most interesting pictures we begin to have room to move, and this is often work where Smith’s vision becomes quite black and forgets casuistry. These photographs are mysterious and almost infernal—e.g. a pianist at the keyboard in a nearly spastic contortion; a begrimed and goggled steelworker manipulating valves against a background of flame; the city of Pittsburgh shrouded and barely visible in wreaths of smoke. One guesses that, confronting these scenes, Smith recognized a kind of violence that was either intrinsically human or not human at all, but either way, was not subject to moral debate. Smith is plainly fascinated with the dark, uncontrollable processes the scenes hint at, and, as he sets his ulterior purpose aside he comes up with strong, autonomous photographs of extraordinary events.

Very occasionally, Smith manages equally strong pictures of gentler material. In one of these, Chaplin struts ahead of a spotlight carrying a rose in one hand and his cane in the other; offstage and behind him, a stagehand continues painting a goat on the backdrop, oblivious to Chaplin’s performance. The impassive goat offsets and jokes at the exaggerated, artful loftiness of Chaplin’s gait. The picture juggles ideas—the master artist vs. the awkward, plodding painter, exquisite sensitivity vs. solid indifference. It may also make an unknowing comment on the whole of Smith’s work, as it counter-poses a delicate flight of fancy (of course a tremendously sophisticated one in Chaplin’s case) with the more workmanlike business of making pictures.

Leo Rubinfien