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.

Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath

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First housecats in Minamata, on the west coast of Kyushu in Japan, went berserk, jumping into the sea. Then it began to affect local fishermen, whose lips and limbs would tingle and then become numb. Their speeches slurred; many died. Women gave birth to deformed foetuses and blind children. It was termed Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Caused by methyl mercury in industrial wastewater from the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory from 1932 to 1968, the disease claimed thousands of lives surreptitiously while the government and company did little to prevent the pollution.

It was a dramatic photographic essay by W. Eugene Smith in LIFE that brought world attention to the disease. Smith and his interpreter, a Japanese American student from Stanford University named Aileen Mioko Sprague (whom Smith would soon marry) were touring Japan for an exhibition of his works. They planned to stay in Minamata for three weeks, but ended up staying for three years. For eighteen dollars a month, they rented a house belonging to one of the victims, sharing a dirt-floored kitchen and bath, where they developed photos.

The most striking photo of the essay shows Ryoko Uemura, holding her severely deformed daughter, Tomoko, in a Japanese bath chamber. Tomoko was poisoned while still in the womb. The pieta of our industrial age, critics called it, and the photoessay was ‘a case study in Japanese politics’ the New York Times wrote. Although the photo was posed for Smith, the family subsequently asked the photo to be withdrawn from circulation. The picture does not appear in recent anthologies of Smith’s works.

A month after this photo, on January 7th 1972, Smith joined other Minamata victims at a demonstration at Chisso’s plant near Tokyo, where he was attacked and seriously injured by Chisso employees which left him with a permanently damaged eye and a crippled health. This attack made Smith a familiar face on local news. A Tokyo department store staged an exhibit of Smith’s photos, which was visited by 50,000 people in twelve days. The photos led the government to take more direct actions and the company to pay compensation. Tomoko died in 1977 at the age of 21.


Albert Schweitzer in Lambaréné

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The recipient of 1952 Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 was German doctor Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), who was also a theologian, musician and philosopher. Although the Peace Prize was given for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life”, it was also given for the founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, now in Gabon, French Equatorial Africa.

The next year, journalists and photographers flocked to Lambaréné. W. Eugene Smith–the father of the photoessay–was among them. In the photoessay “A Man of Mercy” later published in LIFE, he documented Dr. Schweitzer, his hospice, and his humanitarian work in French Equatorial Africa. A perfectionist, and darkroom master, Smith spent up to five days developing and manipulating Schweitzer photographs. 

Smith’s work is one of the flattering ones 78-year old Schweitzer received. Other journalists (for instance, James Cameron) pointed out flaws in the practices and attitudes of Schweitzer and his staff. The hospital suffered from squalor, was without modern amenities and Schweitzer had little contact with the local people, although Cameron withheld the story for the great humanitarian’s sake. The American John Gunther was more blatant: he reported Schweitzer’s patronizing attitude towards Africans, the lack of skilled Africans, and Schweitzer’s dependence on European nurses after three decades.

Iwo Jima: “Sticks and Stones, Bits of Human Bones”

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This poetically named W. Eugune Smith photo has very little romance to it. Taken as US Marine Demolition Team Basting out a cave on Hill 382, Iwo Jima, 1945, the photo, LIFE magazine which portrayed a cropped version on its April issue wrote, not only “captures an instant of violence with an almost dreamlike clarity, but also silently reminded the American public that, after four long years of a war fought halfway around the world, American troops still faced (and administered) daily, relentless destruction”. 

Dewey Defeats Truman

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Many people have seen this photo, called ‘the most famous newspaper photo of the century’ and know the story behind, but few have seen it in its uncropped version. It is taken by W. Eugene Smith for Time Life Pictures on the election night 1948. In the biggest political upset in U.S. history, Harry S. Truman surprised everyone when he, and not Thomas E. Dewey, won the 1948 Presidential election. When Truman went to bed on November 2, he was losing the election. When he woke up the next morning he learnt. He traveled to back to Washington, D.C. that day by train, and on a short stop in St. Louis, he was confronted by a copy of Chicago Tribune. “This is one for the books,” quipped an elated President Truman as he held up the erroneous front page of Chicago Tribune.

In the picture is Truman’s famous ‘whistle-stop’ train–a special “Magellan” train chartered by the Democrats–which made 201 stops on the route to reenforce his image as people’s president. (In fact, both Dewey and Truman did their Presidential campaigning by train. This was the last Presidential election to use this form of transportation; since then Presidential candidates have used airplanes to travel.)