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Truth and Prejudice
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W. Eugene Smith was a fighter. Throughout his career he fought for his photography to be treated as art, and much of the time against demons that were as much inside himself as external. Through his various crusades, Smith enlarged the role of the photographer at several levels. He fought for the acceptance of the 35mm format against editors obsessed with technical quality. He fought for the space to express his ideas. He changed the photo-essay from a descriptive story-telling to an evaluative (and at times polemic) mode. He created some of the iconic images of the century.

The facts of his life are well documented in various sources. Born in Wichita, Kansas, Smith was given a camera at the age of 13 or 14 and quickly determined that all he wanted to do was to be a photographer. At 18 he found himself hooked up to his dying father in hospital, giving a direct blood transfusion in an unsuccessful attempt to save him following his suicide. The treatment of this incident by the press sickened him and coloured his attitude to them for the rest of his life, as well as confirming his own belief in the search for truth and integrity in his work.

Aged 19 he went to New York and joined Newsweek, only to be sacked after three months for continuing to use a miniature camera. Life took him on but he disagreed violently with their choice and use of pictures and soon decided to quit. America then entered the war and he tried to join the US Navy Photographic Group, only to be rejected for "not measuring up to standards." Finally he got to the Pacific as a correspondent of Ziff-Davis Publications, and did so well that most of his images were censored and Life begged him to come back and work for them. Eventually he did, producing some of the finest pictures of the war until he was severely injured at Okinawa.

It took almost two years for him to recover sufficiently to use a camera again, his first effort showing a rear view of two of his young children walking along a path from a tunnel of bushes into a woodland clearing. "The Walk to Paradise Garden" became his best-known image, through use in advertising, exhibitions, and numerous reproductions since. By showing the children from behind, he had created a scene in which the photographer (and the viewer of the picture) identified with the subject. This was the approach which he used to transform the photo-essay; from being an observer the photographer shifted to become a participant in the scenes he was photographing.

Smith’s last great work was in Japan, where he lived and worked on a pittance for three years and almost lost his sight when held by the legs and swung against a concrete wall by thugs working for the chemical company whose pollution was crippling the inhabitants of this fishing village. Life published an essay from this work, but negotiations with other magazines for an extended version failed. In 1975 the work was published as a book, "Minimata."

Smith was a photographer whose work in many ways epitomised the mid-twentieth century and the progress of our civilisation – the fight against superstition and fascism, the growth of ecological awareness. His genius provides us with some of the most memorable and moving images of the century from portraits of the great to everyday scenes, including works clearly based on the great traditions of religious painting. His work and the courageous ideal of truth that sustained it lives on in his work and that of other photojournalist who continue to be inspired by him.

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"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."
W. Eugene Smith
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If you can, please make a contribution towards the disaster relief
efforts in New Orleans by donating to the American Red Cross.

ALSO – To bid on a signed (by myself and Jolene) 10×8 photographic print of my image entitled "Clash Of The Titans" for the Flickr Katrina Relief Auction, click HERE. All proceeds go to the above charity. My talented friend seanhfoto has started the bidding. Now, show him what you can do now.
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