Posts Tagged W. Eugene Smith

The Photojournalist’s Canon: Part Three — From Then to Now

In part 1 and part 2 I started on a list of the photographers who have made the greatest influence on successive generations of photojournalists. To recap, this is a start on a “canon” to which you may contribute a suggestion. I’m looking not just for a list of the “great photographers” nor the most famous or successful. I’m looking for photographers who:

  • Produced documentary work reflecting the important standards and ethics of the profession,
  • Stood the test of time by repeatedly producing notable work, and
  • Innovated in the art or profession by being first to adopt an important style or approach, break a barrier or rise above the limits of the day.

Think of who might have been the first to think of something or do something important. That’s a tougher standard than might be immediately apparent.

So let’s wrap this up with a ‘cambrian explosion’ of styles, where the photo essay was codified, scrapped and rearranged in a score of different ways, the portrait took on a whole new meaning(s) and what we reveal of subjects is less rigid. This is a period where photojournalists take the mandate of documenting the world and interpret it personally.  This is the toughest list to assemble because the farther you look back, the easier it is to spot the innovators and revolutionaries. Sometimes it takes the length of a career to see what changes or new ideas a photographer brought to the profession. I’ll be conservative in naming people or groups here, but that doesn’t mean you can’t chime in. Drop a name or two in comments, with a few sentences about what he, she or they did to change the face of photojournalism.



Simply add boiling water. © Estate of Arthur “Weegee” Felig.

Weegee — If being a newspaper or wire photographer was “feeding the machine” as has often been said, Usher (Arthur) Fellig fed it the morsels with the most gristle. As a freelance New York crime photographer in the 1930s and 40s, Fellig earned the nickname “Weegee” for his uncanny ability to beat the cops to a shooting. They assume he had his fingers on a Ouija Board to get there. In reality, he had a police radio in his car with a darkroom in the trunk, lived in the center of the crime in Hell’s Kitchen, and ran on the motivation of a paycheck. He was one of hundreds of Speed-Graphic-wielding freelancers plying the same trade, but Weegee had a rare sense of humor and irony in his images of New York’s underbelly, and Barnum’s penchant for self promotion. He was the star of a particular way of working that still includes many hot-spot-hopping freelancers and wire contributors. But he is the one that got the MOMA and ICP exhibitions, and yes, he would have pointed that out to you.


Magnum members, 1951.

Magnum Photos — Magnum Photos is not the first photojournalism agency, nor the first group of photographers to coalesce. Magnum changed the idea of the ownership of images, insisting that the copyright of the work remained the photographer’s property. The prominence of the photographers who founded it — Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David “Chim” Seymour and George Rodger — gave the cooperative and its subsequent members the leverage to change business practices in the profession of photography for the better. It remains the preeminent photojournalism agency, and the style of its members has influenced every subsequent generation of photographers and photojournalists.


Wake, Deleitosa, Spain, 1951. © Estate of W. Eugene Smith

W. Eugene Smith — Smith had the news sense of Alfred Eisenstaedt, the understanding of combat of Capa and the technical polish of Walker Evans. He is also our model of obsessive-compulsive, irascible and addicted artist of the real. But his greatest contribution was in the redefinition of the photographic essay. In 1949 he broke with LIFE’s script for a photo essay on a country doctor in Colorado to photograph what he saw (and a little of what he wished to see). That essay and subsequent ones on Dr. Albert Schweitzer and nurse-midwife Maude Callen reshaped the way we approach the long form of photojournalism. An essay on a Spanish Village under fascist rule is arguably the template National Geographic has followed since for covering a place. His last essay on mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan, is one of the most powerful and complete reportages on the environment ever published. And his failed essay on Pittsburgh at mid century is one of the most beautiful, compelling and epic failures of the profession. He was also a compulsive audio collector, amassing thousands of hours of documentary sound from a New York City loft from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. His personality was a cautionary tale for how to act and how not to act, but his essay work will echo for the foreseeable future.


Elevator operator, Miami Beach, 1955. © Robert Frank

Robert Frank — While Smith was crafting the public, mainstream photographic essay for LIFE and Magnum Photos, Frank was creating a model of the personal photographic essay. On a Guggenheim grant in 1955, Frank crossed the U.S. photographing the world’s foremost power with the eyes of a foreigner. The Americans was an overtly critical look in the mirror for most Americans and flew directly in the face of Steichen’s contemporaneous Family of Man. Walker Evans was one of the few who saw the value in the images. “It is a far cry from all the woolly, successful ‘photo-sentiments’ about human familyhood,” he wrote. Where Smith’s stories may assemble virtual bullet points in the images chosen, Frank’s are personal, subtle and tease the emotions of the reader. Smith’s images were about the emotions of the subject. Frank’s work has influenced the craft as deeply as Smith’s and his approach has emerged in the work of others from Larry Fink to Danny Lyon, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Bruce Davidson and probably you. He is an artist, poet and filmmaker, and says he lost his Leica in 1962 and didn’t mind.


New York, 1954. © William Klein

William Klein — If Frank’s work was about the distance and ennui of American society, Klein’s poked your nose and boldly stated that New York is Good and Good For You. His 1956 book by that name grabbed you by the shirt and dragged you into the streets of the city at close range, with very wide-angle lenses in a way that wouldn’t let you escape. Klein took that energy into the fashion world where he and a few others created the look of fashion images in the 1960s.


© Elliott Erwitt

© Elliott Erwitt

Elliot Erwitt — I once sat at JFK with a fresh copy of Erwitt’s Personal Exposures catching the annoyed glances of fellow air travelers because I could not contain the out-loud laughs as I paged through the book. As a journalist Erwitt is incisive, catching one of the iconic moments of the Cold War among others. But he is most notable for an irrepressible humor in his images that has never — to my knowledge at least — been matched by anyone. His work is a stream of dry and witty jokes, slapstick humor and uncanny timing.

Jaqueline Kennedy Onasis. © Ron Galella

Ron Galella — In class I often ask new students if they would consider the paparazzi to be journalists. There is no genre of documentary photography more maligned than those who chase celebrity the way Weegee chased murders, and the students’ responses reflect that viscerally. But if the moment be real, I argue, what’s the difference? The idea of doing it still makes my skin crawl, but I have to admit that it is the journalism of the low-brow we all crave from time to time. The granddaddy of these used-car-salesmen of the profession is Ron Galella, the paparazzo who would not let Jackie O out of his sight, resulting in lengthy legal battles. In one case he was given a requirement to stay 150 feet away from his favorite subject. The second required him to stop photographing her for life. Marlon Brando punched him in Chinatown. Sure, there were celebrity-following camera jockeys long before him and will be as long as there are celebrities. But Galella took dauntless obsession and anything-for-the-shot to new heights (or should that be depths?).


© Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka — There are a few regions where reality and magic blend in the eyes of artists and the words of poets. Latin America and Eastern Europe have both produced remarkable photographers whose work reflects the magic realism of Borges, Márquez or Llosa. If I knew eastern European authors I would include a few of them in simile too. His images of the rituals and lives of Slovakian gypsies are infused with the magic we imagine in their lives. They are intimate images the way Frank’s are, but the emotions come not just from the photographer but seemingly from the subjects themselves. And his work on the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 demonstrates a bravery fictionalized by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Refugees in the Korem Camp, Ethiopia, 1984. © Sebastião Salgado and Amazonas Images

Sebastião Salgado — He began his professional life as an economist for the International Coffee Organization but soon drifted to photography through which he has documented the social and political circumstances of the people most directly affected by the production of that and other commodities. This is firmly in the traditions of Riis, Hine and the FSA among others. But what makes Salgado’s work different is a fusion of the magic realism of Álvarez Bravo or Koudelka combined with the compositional complexity of Cartier-Bresson, and a skill for revealing the dignity in his subjects, no matter their circumstances.


Street kids, Seattle. © Mary Ellen Mark.

Street kids, Seattle. © Mary Ellen Mark.

Mary Ellen Mark — Many photographers have relished photographing subjects at whom you might like to stare — Richard Avedon’s In the American West, Diana Arbus’ work — but Mark developed early a style that blends social documentary with the made-you-look quality of subjects on the fringes of society. You may sometimes be shocked, but you never want to turn away from her empathetic stories.


Alexander Calder © Arnold NEwman

Alexander Calder © Arnold NEwman

Arnold Newman — Until the latter half of the 20th century, the posed, formal portrait was as much about vanity as it was a document. Portraits reflected the Old Masters in style and composition more than they really illustrated the life or personality of a subject. Perhaps the greatest practitioner of the environmental portrait was Arnold Newman, who could coax personality from a subject and reveal it in a telling environment better than anyone. There have been portraitists who have lit better, composed better, been more stylized and flashy, but few have taught us so much about the subjects themselves.


Birmingham, Ala., 1963. © Estate of Charles Moore.

Wenela recruiting corporation, Eloff St Extension, Johannesburg, 1959. For chest examinations the recruits were required to strip. Magubane gained access to the facility by wearing a white coat and posing as an official. COPYRIGHT: PETER MAGUBANE

Mine worker inspection, South Africa. © Peter Magubane

Charles Moore and Peter Magubane — Few Western photojournalists ever find themselves covering strife and revolution in their own backyards. Both of these men — Moore in the American South during the Civil Rights Movement and Magubane in South Africa under Apartheid — photographed their own cultures, neighbors and backyards in upheaval. It is always more difficult to photograph one’s own world than it is to photograph the foreign. These men, and others like them such the “Bang Bang Club,” Micha Bar-Am and others in similar circumstances have had to turn the cameras onto their friends, neighbors and families to tell the story of a revolution, and in the process created documents that explain deeply from within the story itself.

© Estate of Ernst Haas

Cuba. © Alex Webb

Ernst Haas and Alex Webb — Color photography has existed since the beginning of the 20th Century, but it did not reach maturity until color print reproduction was common and affordable in magazines. Until Haas and Webb, color was a secondary element in a photograph — more detail, more reality but less so an element of design. However Haas made color a principle element of mood and emotion, and Webb uses it as a structural element of composition. For both, color was as primary a reason to make an image as the moment in the scene, the social or historical significance or other graphic elements of the photo. They see color better than their predecessors.

Arnold Schwarzenegger. © Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz — Whereas Newman was out to find and photograph the person behind the celebrity, Leibovitz developed a style in the 1980s of photographing the celebrity in front of the person. Her subjects reveal not their innermost selves, but the crafted stage persona they have all developed and that is the source of their fame. And like many styles and approaches, Leibovitz has been emulated with failure more often than success as many photographers strive for stylization over substance in portraits. In addition to the portraiture, Leibovitz also revolutionized the way we document celebrity behind the scenes with her complete access following the Rolling Stones in the early 1970s.

And who comes next? I see trends away from the crisp realism of the last century toward an edgy, blurred point of view that feels like the pictorialists taking on the subject matter of Lewis Hine or Robert Frank. Who is the progenitor of that mood or another possible shift in how we approach our craft or profession? I am just one opinion with one knowledge set. You tell me who comes next.

Please note, most images on this post are linked directly from the originating sites rather than downloaded and republished. Please forgive any dead links.


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W. Eugene Smith at the Jazz Loft: Hard Times and Multimedia

The Jazz Loft (Linked from The Jazz Loft Project)

I was out of the country teaching photojournalism in southeast Asia when this series aired on WNYC and in edited form on NPR nationally.

The series first crossed my radar as a jazz head and grabbed me as a W. Eugene Smith fan. Of particular interest to photojournalists is episode two, “Images of the Loft.”

Smith has long been one of my heroes for his polishing of the photographic essay form, starting with his 1948 Country Doctor essay and on to Minamata, one of the most powerful pieces of environmental journalism ever done.

Between the two he beautifully photographed Dr. Albert Schweitzer, nurse-midwife Maude Callen, a village in fascist Spain, Haitian insane asylums and many others.

Between that famous work for Life magazine and the stunning Minamata book, he lost himself, barely able to leave a dingy loft on New York’s Sixth Ave.

W. Eugene Smith at his loft window (linked from

He continued to photograph — a personal and introverted essay shot entirely through his fractured window, “As From My Window I Sometimes Watch,” and thousands of images of the jazz musicians, such as Thelonious Monk, who came and went through the tenement at all hours of the day and night.

He also printed and collected obsessively, and tried to edit and reexamine his massive, beautiful and improvisational body of work from Pittsburgh.

At the same time, new technologies appeared that appealed both to Smith’s documentary impulses and to his undying interest in music — the tape recorder.

Late last year, Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and WNYC produced an extensive audio documentary and book on The Jazz Loft where Smith lived. The program’s dual focus on Smith and the jazz musicians who jammed there is only possible thanks to Smith’s recorder, thousands of tapes, and his obsessive nature.

An exhibition of images will open at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on February 17 and run through May 22, 2010. It will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center, Duke University and the University of Arizona where Smith’s archive resides.

If Smith captures your imagination, admiration and sometimes train-wreck fascination the way he does with me, see the exhibition. Also seek out the 1989 docudrama “Photography Made Difficult,” and the 2003 book on his three-year, 11,000-frame Pittsburgh project.

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Robert Capa and a Perspective on Ethics

A few 4X5 'roids left. Monument Valley, Utah, July 23, 2009. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

A few 4X5 'roids left. Monument Valley, Utah, July 23, 2009. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

Every decade for the past half century the debate over the veracity of Capa’s Falling Soldier image from the Spanish Civil War rages anew. It is all over the photojournalism blogosphere and the media this last week. I am a bit disappointed with the 21st-century demonizing of him for what may probably be a setup.

A decade ago I was eager to believe an elderly Spanish woman who claimed the subject was her dead brother, and the background of the image was where he was reported killed in action. It seemed to set the debate to rest and gratified my respect for Capa.

Of course she might have been mistaken, and new research makes a compelling case that she was wrong.

But regardless whether the image is real or not, we need to remember to judge the photo and the photographer in context.

In 1936 photojournalism and its ethics were in their infancy. Capa would not have had the training of modern journalism professors and an extra 70 years of photojournalism ethics on which to hang his work. It is quite believable that he may have set up the photo, among others. Ethics is an evolution and always starts out a bit feral before civilization is reached.

As late as the 1950s the vast majority of news photos, in the average paper, were completely set up. Fortunately for us and for history we have forgotten most of that work. And even in the early 21st century, many TV news images are set up, along with much suspect work on the Internet.

I have no doubt that as Capa matured, his work progressed and his ethics developed, his work stayed quite honest. A photojournalist’s eye on his work could tell immediately that the vast majority of the moments are spontaneous.

So we can’t and shouldn’t demonize him any more than we would W. Eugene Smith who unquestionably fused two negatives into one on a famous image of Albert Schwietzer, and used the edge of a negative in another from his Spanish Village story as if it were part of the real-world content. In that same story, using retouching brushes, he chose to change the direction of the gaze of a mourner. In his early Country Doctor story he unquestionably set up the lede photo of the doctor walking through a gate, and the closing image of the tired physician slumped with a cup of coffee after a long day.

In his powerful and mind-changing Minamata work, the most famous image is also set up. Smith chose the time of day to ask Tomoko Uyemura’s mother to bathe her so he could catch the light that so effectively evokes Michelangelo’s Pietà.

By standards of the late 20th century these are grave ethical breaches. Making even more subtle changes now get newspaper photographers fired and some magazine freelancers blacklisted from their clients. But at the time Smith was working these were not uncommon techniques.

We all revere Smith’s ability to tell a story, his amazing eye for form, contrast and content, and the wonderful stories he brought us.

And before we crucify Smith along with Capa, let’s remember this: Judge the photographer in context of time. Were they working today they would hopefully not behave this way. Would they, their colleagues and editors would have justifiable grounds to end their careers. They would have no excuses now. Our ethics have surpassed all this.

We also need to be careful not to throw stones. Seventy years from now our very own techniques may be under fire as falsehoods — excessive dodges and burns, exaggerated saturation and contrast, questionable use of light and flash…

Capa, Smith, and the often-mentioned-this-week Robert Doisneau, were imperfect men of their time, who despite their mistakes contributed hugely to our art, communication perspective and ethics. Collectively they created as many falsehoods among their work as the average daily photojournalist publishes in less than a week. And collectively they created as many honest, powerful and world-changing images in their careers as any Pulitzer-winning staff could hope to in a lifetime.

I judge Capa, Smith and their contemporaries based on their era. I will judge my students and colleagues based on this era.

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