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HomeContents > People > Photographers > W. Eugene Smith

Born: William Eugene Smith 
Other: Gene Smith 
Dates:  1918, 30 December - 1978, 15 October
Born:  US, KS, Wichita
Died:  US, AZ, Tucson
Active:  US
American photojournalist long associated with LIFE magazine. His photo-essays on ‘Spanish Village‘ (9 April 1951), ‘Country Doctor‘ (20 Sept 1948), ‘Schweitzer‘ (15 Nov 1954) and ‘Minamata‘ (2 June 1972) are among the most famous and sensitive ever produced.
The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith retain the copyrights to all of his photographs with the exception of the "Minamata" series. Requests to reproduce photographs by W. Eugene Smith should be sent directly to:
Kevin Eugene Smith
Representative of the Heirs of W. Eugene Smith

Preparing biographies

Biography provided by Focal Press 
Smith’s extended photo-essays in LIFE magazine (1939–1955), Man of Mercy (on Albert Schweitzer), Country Doctor, Spanish Village, and Nurse Midwife helped define a new style of magazine photojournalism in America. Forming an ideology of social responsibility and humanism during his years as a WWII photographer in the Pacific, Smith returned from the war to produce picture stories for LIFE that resonate with depth, optimism, and belief in the human spirit. His moral and visual standards have had a lasting impact on today’s photographers. "My principle concern is for honesty, above all honesty with myself …" He eventually left the constraints of magazine work to pursue personal projects of greater depth and scope (in Pittsburgh and New York), defining himself as an artist and producing prints of outstanding tonal richness and beauty. His final work, Minamata (1975), produced in collaboration with his second wife, is an essay in photographs and words of the tragic effect of mercury pollution on this small fishing village in Japan. He taught at New York’s New School for Social Research, and served as president of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. 
(Author: Garie Waltzer - Photographer and consultant) 
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 

Further research

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Carl Uytterhaegen
W. Eugene Smith, Arles, France 
Family history 
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch.

Visual indexes

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Supplemental information


W. Eugene Smith

At the age of 15, Smith was drawn to news photography and worked on assignments for the Wichita Eagle and the Wichita Beacon while still in high school. He earned a photography scholarship to Notre Dame University in Indiana, but left after only one year and went to New York where he got a job at Newsweek. In 1938 he joined Black Star agency where he worked as a freelance photographer for magazines including LIFE, Collier's and Harper's Bazaar. Early in his career Smith realized that photography had the power to raise social consciousness and affect change. Smith was eager to have his photographs seen by a wider audience and to photograph the most poignant and pressing stories so he joined LIFE magazine in 1939. Although he had an on-and-off relationship with them until 1955, he was one of their most highly respected photographers. In 1942 Smith worked for the publishing firm Ziff-Davis covering the war in the South Pacific. Frustrated that he couldn't get close enough to the action, he returned to LIFE in 1944. In 1945, while documenting the invasion of Okinawa, Smith was hit by shrapnel and was unable to work for almost two years while he recovered from his wounds. After such a long break from making photographs, he wanted his next image to be significant. The result was a photograph of his two children walking out of the woods into the light called "Walk in Paradise Garden". It was such a strong image that Edward Steichen used it in his 1955 exhibition and book entitled, The Family of Man.
Smith is probably best known for his photo-essays. Among his most successful are "Country Doctor", "Nurse Midwife" and "A Man of Mercy" about Albert Schweitzer. Although this work kept him quite busy, he still found time to be active in the Photo League (from 1948-50 he was the president); Magnum Photos from 1955-58; and in 1958 he began teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Among many accomplishments, Smith was a three-time recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship; he won the ASMP's Third Annual Photojournalism Conference award in 1959; he was voted by Popular Photography Magazine as one of the "World's 10 Greatest Photographers"; and he was awarded an NEA grant in 1975.
In the early 1970s Smith and his wife moved to Minamata, Japan to document the plight of people who had suffered from industrial mercury poisoning. Smith believed that pollution was a world-wide problem and he wanted to make people conscious through his photographs. In 1977 Smith and his wife settled in Tucson, AZ where he taught at the University of Arizona and arranged his archives at the Center for Creative Photography. For more information on Smith see W. Eugene Smith Photographs 1934-1975 published by Harry N. Abrams.
[Contributed by Lee Gallery]

"Pittsburgh, a 'photographic essay' by W. Eugene Smith"
An assignment which normally would have taken two to three-and-a-half weeks to complete was turned into a tortuous three-year ordeal by W. Eugene Smith that resulted in his essentially unfinished masterpiece, the 'Pittsburgh' story. He made 11,000 negatives over five months in 1955 and a few weeks in 1957. During this time, Smith's marriage was breaking up, his health deteriorated, he was threatened with a lawsuit, he ran up huge debts with the agency Magnum Photos, and he went bankrupt himself, leaving his family near destitution, despite the two successive Guggenheim Fellowships he received.
Born in 1918 and raised in Kansas, Smith began his professional career in his teens supplying pictures to the local newspaper. Advancing to national magazines, he rapidly acquired an international reputation for his bold photographs of the Second World War in the Pacific. While on the staff of Life magazine, Smith produced the classic photographic essays "Country Doctor", "Spanish Village", and "Nurse Midwife" in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With these three features he set a new standard for evocative picture stories.
Increasingly frustrated with the restrictions of working for the magazine, he resigned at the end of 1954 over an essay he had done on Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Smith soon joined Magnum where he obtained the Pittsburgh commission. Noted picture editor Stefan Lorant needed some photographs for a pictorial history of Pittsburgh, a book intended to support an urban renewal program in one of the most polluted cities in the United States. Smith received an advance of $500 on a guaranteed final fee of $1,200.
He saw in this commission the opportunity to expand the form of the photographic essay to the dimension of "an epic in the tradition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass" (W. S. Johnson). Smith moved to Pittsburgh where he improvised a darkroom in his apartment and hired an assistant and a local guide. Working with relentless intensity, he invested all of his financial resources in the project. This project was hampered not only by Smith's often self-destructive personality and stubbornness, but also by bad luck and legal complications. Lorant's book finally appeared only in 1964 (with 64 of Smith's images).
Attempting to salvage the work, Magnum arranged for publishing agreements with Look and Life, but they collapsed because Smith, dissatisfied with the page layouts, kept modifying them in an attempt to weave a complex fabric of themes and metaphors with multiple connotations and resonance. The Pittsburgh story has never been published in any form approaching his book-length intentions. The most complete version, in his own layout, comprising 88 photographs covering 37 pages, was published in the 1959 Popular Photography Annual. Smith considered it a failure.
The Pittsburgh project is a remarkable milestone of his noble effort to push the photographic essay into a larger dimension. Smith finally achieved that goal with Minamata in 1975.
© Stuart Alexander (2006) - Used with permission
[From page 633 of: Frizot, Michel, ed., A New History of Photography. Cologne: Könemann, 1998.]
For further reading:
Lorant, Stefan, ed., Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1964.
Johnson, William S. W. Eugene Smith: Master of the Photographic Essay. Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1981.
Hughes, Jim. W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.
Stephenson, Sam. Dream Street: E. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project. New York: Lyndhurst / W.W. Norton, 2001.  

Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.] Go to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography. Go to website

Internet resources

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W. Eugene Smith ... 
This is part of the excellent American Masters series of television programs broadcast by PBS in the USA. 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.204 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.468-469 
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.228 [Includes a well written short biography on W. Eugene Smith with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
• Weaver, Mike (ed.) 1989 The Art of Photography 1839-1989 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) p.466 [This exhibition catalogue is for the travelling exhibition that went to Houston, Canberra and London in 1989.] 
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.238-239 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.260 
• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.202 
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by W. Eugene Smith are included in this classic history.] 
• Sobieszek, Robert A. and Deborah Irmas 1994 the camera i: Photographic Self-Portraits (Los Angeles: LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art) p.231, Plate 95 [When the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection was donated to LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 the museum gained a remarkable collection of self portraits of notable photographers. If you need a portrait of W. Eugene Smith this is a useful starting point.] 
• Szarkowski, John 1973 Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art) p.150 [Analyzes a single photograph by W. Eugene Smith.] 


Photographic collections are a useful means of examining large numbers of photographs by a single photographer on-line. 

In the 1990 survey of 535 American photographic collections W. Eugene Smith was represented in 74 of the collections. Source: Andrew H. Eskind & Greg Drake (eds.) 1990 Index to American Photographic Collections [Second Enlarged Edition] (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co.) 
Library of Congress, Washington, USA 
Approximate number of records: 18 
Note: A single record may contain more than one photograph.
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The wit and wisdom.

"I‘ve never made any picture, good or bad, without paying for it in emotional turmoil."
"Never have I found the limits of the photographic potential. Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance. Always, I am on the threshold."
"Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes one photograph, or a group of them, can lure our sense of awareness."
"The world just does not fit conveniently into the format of a 35mm camera."
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