New York

W. Eugene Smith

Photograph Gallery

One cannot help admiring W. Eugene Smith, who was a man of extraordinary integrity and courage. That does not mean I have to like his photographs, though. I think that it’s possible to have too much character, too resolute and clear a vision of human experience. Art, at least, requires something less positive. A little ambivalence is helpful. In order to be worth reading later, even the memoirs of a saint have to be full of doubt, dissipation and all the other complexities of real life that come before the conversion. The greatest photographers to me—Eugene Atget, Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank—are people who allow their flaws of character to show in their photographs. Life does get these men down at times. You can see it in their pictures (even Cartier-Bresson’s). They are not indomitable. They don’t always display the will to go on. They often lose sight of the eternal verities. They are vulnerable and full of misgivings. Their beliefs don’t survive everything intact. So far as I’m concerned, anybody who isn’t having at least this much trouble getting along in the 20th century is a fool—a holy fool, perhaps, but a fool nonetheless.

All the pictures in Smith’s exhibition at the Photograph Gallery, which recently bought the entire Smith estate, are from his early work, 1939–1952. Smith’s career began at a unique historical moment, when the social and political issues of this century seemed to be simplifying themselves at last. Had he started out as a photographer ten years earlier or later, I don’t think that even he could have concentrated on the heroism of individuals—the infantryman, the country doctor or midwife, the spinner of yarn and thread—the way he did. And as right as his convictions were for the moment, he still had to limit himself greatly in both setting and subject in order to realize his vision.

It was only in small, isolated communities like the Spanish village, or in the infantry platoon, that his world seemed credible. (The big story of his later career, Minimata, was of course another such place.) It was only by concentrating on people at work that he could impart to his pictures the ethical force he believed all life to have. He restricted himself to those few activities and places where altruism could still take a specific, visible, photographable form. Pure and noble feelings simply have not been as hardy in this century as his pictures make them look. The sentiments the pictures represent seem almost archaic. For me Smith’s reputation is ultimately based not on the pictures themselves, but on his character. He brought a sense of personal honor to both photography and the magazine business, which was notorious for its power to corrupt. His character lends a definite glow to his pictures. But the truth is that in order to appreciate his character, I don’t really need to look at the pictures at all.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.