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.

Gloria Swanson by Edward Steichen

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Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was already a famed Pictorialist photographer and painter in the United States and abroad when he was offered the position of chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair by Condé Nast. Upon assuming the job, the forty-four year old artist began one of the most lucrative and controversial careers in photography. To Alfred Stieglitz and his followers, Steichen was seen as damaging the cause of photography as a fine art by agreeing to do commercial editorial work. Nevertheless, Steichen’s years at Condé Nast magazines were extraordinarily prolific and inspired.

He began by applying the soft focus style he had helped create to the photography of fashion. But soon he revolutionized the field, banishing the gauzy light of the Pictorialist era and replacing it with the clean, crisp lines of Modernism. In the process he changed the presentation of the fashionable woman from that of a distant, romantic creature to that of a much more direct, appealing, independent figure. At the same time he created lasting portraits of hundreds of leading personalities in movies, theatre, literature, politics, music, and sports, including Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Colette, Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart, Jack Dempsey, Noel Coward, Greta Garbo, Dorothy Parker, and Cecil B. De Mille.”

Steichen’s portrait of Gloria Swanson has taken on iconic masterpiece status overtime. Created in 1924, just as the first feature-length sound movies were emerging—effectively truncating the actress’s brilliant silent-film career—this image caught the essential Gloria Swanson: haunting and inscrutable, forever veiled in the whisper of a distant era.* Steichen’s photograph has elements of turn-of-the-century pictorialism (moody and delicate, the subject seeming to peer from the darkness, as if from jungle foliage), yet it also projects modernist boldness, with its pin-sharp precision and graphic severity.

* Swanson would depict a similarly aloof and tragic actress whose time had past in Sunset Boulevard a decade later and would win widespread acclaim.