A Walk To The Paradise Garden

W. Eugene Smith was no doubt one of the greatest war correspondents of the last century. As the photographer for Life, he followed the island-hopping American offensive against Japan, from Saipan to Guam, from Iwo Jima to Okinawa, where he was hit by mortar fire, and invalided back.

His war wounds cost him two painful years of hospitalization and plastic surgery. During those years he took no photos, and it was doubtful whether he would ever be able to return to photography. Then one day in 1946, he took a walk with his two children, Juanita and Patrick, towards a sun-bathed clearing:

While I followed my children into the undergrowth and the group of taller trees – how they were delighted at every little discovery! – and observed them, I suddenly realized that at this moment, in spite of everything, in spite of all the wars and all I had gone through that day, I wanted to sing a sonnet to life and to the courage to go on living it….

Pat saw something in the clearing, he grasped Juanita by the hand and they hurried forward. I dropped a little farther behind the engrossed children, then stopped. Painfully I struggled — almost into panic — with the mechanical iniquities of the camera….

I tried to, and ignore the sudden violence of pain that real effort shot again and again through my hand, up my hand, and into my spine … swallowing, sucking, gagging, trying to pull the ugly tasting serum inside, into my mouth and throat, and away from dripping down on the camera….

I knew the photograph, though not perfect, and however unimportant to the world, had been held…. I was aware that mentally, spiritually, even physically, I had taken a first good stride away from those past two wasted and stifled years.  (See original text)

While he was right about his stride towards recovery, Smith miscalculated the photo’s importance. In 1955, a heavily-indebted Smith decided to submit the photo to Edward Steichen’s now-famous Family of Man exhibit at the MOMA. There, it became a finalist and then the closing image, thus cementing its position as the ur-icon of all family photographs.

36 thoughts on “A Walk To The Paradise Garden

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  2. That’s a picture of me and my brother on the way to a Chinese cornerstore in Oakland. Wouldn’t be sutprised if it was actually called Paradise Garden Meat Market. I still have the scar on my knee from stumbling over the rock in the foreground.

  3. I used this photograph in my Grade 10 English class to instruct the students on how to read a photograph ( code & conventions ). Sparked a lot of discussion and also generated a variety of creative writing activities.

  4. One of the most iconic photographic images of all time. Unfortuantely, the image was done on what I think was a Polaroid transfer if I remember the description long ago and Mr. Smith didn’t make the photo on negative film. This was a one time image I think.

    • The biography of Eugene Smith (W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance – The Life and Work of an American Photographer by Jim Hughes ) includes sections of Smith’s journal.

      Smith states that this photo–his very first since he came back from the war physically and emotionally shattered– was done with his 35mm camera. (Leica, I think. But I don’t remember, as he had several types of 35 mm cameras)

      Smith routinely photographed very large prints of his images as to get exactly the shadows & and detail he saw in his mind, so there would always be more than one image, though Smith was vociferous that only photos HE printed could be sold.

      In addition Polaroid came out in 1948. Walk to Paradise Garden was shot in 1946

    • 1. Which wife? Carmen Smith? She wasn’t a photographer, she was a nurse. Though I’ve read a lot about Smith, have never heard or read of Carmen even being a talented amateur photographer. His Japanese wife was a photographer, but he didn’t meet her till the 50’s. He did live with a young woman who was a talented photographer, but that was decades after this shot was taken.
      2. This is not a snapshot. This is a brilliantly composed photograph taken at that “perfect moment” which would have been difficult to expose correctly because of all the backlight. The chances of this being an amateur snapshot are a billion to one. Anything is possible, but certainly not probable.
      3. Why would Carmen ALLOW him to take credit for such an amazing image? I can’t imagine ANYONE allowing that to happen.

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  6. I have a nicely framed poster of this photograph that I bought in the 1980s, from an exhibition in London. My then partner (later my wife) named the children Daniel and Polly. My wife Sue has died and I have moved, but the poster adorns my hall and gives pleasure every time I and others see it.

    Russ

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