The relentless photography of W. Eugene Smith

A mother bathes her daughter’s deformed body with tenderness. A soldier holds a dying infant he found abandoned on a mountain path. A country doctor returns home, weary from a long day. These iconic images are the work of acclaimed photo essayist W. Eugene Smith, and are part of a retrospective at Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis.

motherandchild.jpg

Gallery owner Martin Weinstein says W. Eugene Smith thought this image was his finest photograph. While at first difficult to look at, the photo depicts a mother’s unconditional love for her child, and is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pietà.

Tomoko Uemura in her Bath, Minamata, Japan, 1972

Gelatin silver print, 11-1/2 x 19 inches

Image courtesy Weinstein Gallery

In some ways the show is long overdue. The gallery typically puts on exhibitions of two historically important photographers each year, and Weinstein was a fan of Smith’s work long before the gallery opened 17 years ago.

“Smith was an American photographer who devoted his career toward conveying a morally conscious message,” recalls Weinstein. “He developed that conscience in World War II. His pictures became of the angst and the injurious nature of war – the fact that it was the people on the ground who were paying the price.”

Smith’s camera turned its gaze from the military leaders to the bodies being buried at sea, and to the innocent children caught in the crossfire.

smith-dying-infant-web.jpg

Wounded, Dying Infant Found by American Soldier in Saipan Mountains, 1944

Gelatin silver print, 13 x 10 inches

Image courtesy Weinstein Gallery

Smith was sent home from the front lines after being hit by mortar fire, but he soon found new injustices – and new heroes – to capture stateside. His photo essay for Life Magazine depicting the exhausting work of Colorado country doctor Ernest Ceriani is widely credited as the first work of journalism told entirely through images. In Martin Weinstein’s words, “Smith led the charge.”

Smith went on to create photo essays on Dr. Albert Schweitzer, poverty in Spain under Franco and the dire effects of mercury poisoning on Japanese children living close to a chemical plant.

Weinstein says what set Smith apart from other photographers was his compassion.

“It’s the emotional nature of the pictures,” says Weinstein. “Henri-Cartier Bresson is referred to as being the gold standard of photography. If you look at [Bresson's] images, many are witty, and certainly many offer up political commentary, but Eugene Smith is openly emotional with his work.”

Smith was known for spending weeks with his subjects, getting to know them and building trust.

miners.jpg

Three Generations of Welsh Miners, 1950

Gelatin silver print, 9-1/4 x 13 inches

Image courtesy Weinstein Gallery

Three of the photos on display at the Weinstein Gallery are also in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Curator David Little says many photographers are forgotten today, because their work was purely documentary and relevant only to their own time. But Smith’s work is different.

“There is something about these photographs,” Little says. “There’s a transcendent quality to them. They document, they give us the morality, but then they give us more – it’s that extra bit that sets him apart. Eugene Smith was knowledgeable about art and he used art as a way to make people care, and that’s why his work carries on.”

In today’s media-saturated world, it’s hard to imagine the impact Smith’s photo essays had on a public that could choose from only a few TV channels and knew only rotary telephones. Magazines like Life served as windows on the world. When the magazine printed more than 20 images of a hardworking nurse midwife struggling to meet the needs of her South Carolina patients, readers responded by flooding her with donations that funded a clinic.

countrydoctor[1].jpg

Country Doctor, 1948

Gelatin silver print, 19-1/4 x 23 inches

Image courtesy Weinstein Gallery

Weinstein thinks of Smith’s work as a sort of visual equivalent to Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation“, each documenting their subjects’ flaws as well as merits.

MIA Curator Little says the Weinstein show is one of the best he’s seen, and similar to a museum-quality exhibition. All the images are “lifetime prints” — printed by Smith with the help of his assistants.

In addition, Weinstein has old copies of Life magazine on hand for visitors to page through, allowing them to see Smith’s photographs in their original context.

W. Eugene Smith: I Have Tried To Let Truth Be My Prejudice runs through April 27.