The Struggle for an Authorial Role

Mark Frohman

W. Eugene Smith and the Photographic Essay, by Glenn G. Willumson, New York, Cambridge University Press; 1992. 351 pages, $65.

W. Eugene Smith and the Photographic Essay has the initial appearance of a typical monograph on yet another canonized “photographic master.” Upon further investigation however, it becomes clear that Glenn G. Willumson has compiled a rigorous study, particularly noteworthy for its extensive research, reprinted original sources, and exploration of the historical and ideological implications of Smith’s work. This last characteristic is one that, regrettably, is often absent from such undertakings of photographic history writing.

Willumson’s study does not claim to be a definitive or total reading of Smith and his work; the author prefers rather to examine Smith’s combative relationship with the discourse of photojournalism, specifically the editorial structure of LIFEmagazine. Willumson introduces his subject with a brief tracing of the picture magazine’s ancestry, tracing its lineage to illustrated newspapers, chronicling the hierarchical relationship of editors and staff artists, as well as the technological advancements from engravings and drawings to the development of photography and the halftone process. The author is quick to point out, however, that his is not a technological history, but an attempt to situate Smith and his work within the institutional practice of the time, a move that is necessary to the understanding of both Smith’s successes and failures.

In 1936, LIFE magazine published its first issue. The element distinguishing LIFE from its mostly European antecedents, as well as defining its commercial success, was its abundant use of photographs. At a time when photographic layout was remarkably unsophisticated in the United States, used mostly to illustrate facts from the text, LIFE made photographs the dominant narrative device. Publisher Henry Luce promoted the camera’s ability to not only “report,” but to “comment” as well, comparing the photographer to an essayist. The staff photographer, previously considered simply as a “visual thesaurus” by editors, was now endowed with a certain authorial role and encouraged to develop a “style” and the skills of interpretation. Analogizing photography with language, Luce wanted LIFE to present a point of view, constructed through the rhetorical capabilities of the photographic essay.

Reaching a mass audience of more than 7 million, LIFE magazine was a primary source of visual information and knowledge, having a profound role in shaping public discourse and opinion in post-war, pre-television America. Yet with such power and influence, LIFE had to retain a highly complex and structured organization. Despite Luce’s theoretical empowerment of photojournalists, LIFE’s editors retained the ultimate decision-making authority, thereby controlling meaning of the final product through selection, sequence, layout, and captions. It was this highly mediated process that would ultimately lead to Eugene Smith’s resignation from LIFE in 1954.

Willumson’s book focuses on Smith’s four major photographic essays for LIFE: “Country Doctor” (1948), “Spanish Village” (1951), “Nurse Midwife” (1951), and “A Man of Mercy” (1954). Each is reprinted as it originally appeared in the pages of LIFE. Dividing his analysis of each work into sections entitled “Concept and Publication,” “Narrative and Aesthetic Reading,” “Political and Ideological Reading,” and “Public Reception,” Willumson enacts what he describes as “close reading.” He proposes the first reading (narrative and aesthetic) as the most obvious or “natural,” directed toward LIFE’s “implied reader.” Such a reading consists of examining the way in which the subject is portrayed—the country doctor as “secular sainthood,” a role model for others to follow—and how the formal aspects of camera angle, pose, lighting, layout, and sequence directed the meaning and attitude of the essay. The second reading (political and ideological) then views the essay in relation to the historical context of its production, revealing “a number of hidden implications that the contemporary reader must have subconsciously absorbed.”

For example, “Country Doctor” received widespread praise for its innovative layout as well as Smith’s “emotional understanding” and visual intensity, setting the example for future projects. However, “Country Doctor” was not innocent of its political context, as it coincided with a key issue of Truman’s 1948 campaign: the debate on national healthcare. LIFEmagazine openly opposed Truman’s package for “socialized medicine” in its editorials. It sided with the New York Academy of Medicine’s plan for a redistribution of doctors from urban to rural communities. LIFE’s publication of “Country Doctor” portrays a romantic reverence for this hard-working profession as it also demonstrates the community’s spiritual—and financial—support of its country doctor. It is uncertain how aware Smith was of the essay’s broader political implications, though Willumson makes it clear that Smith’s superiors understood them quite well based on their choice of the particular doctor and community. In this context, “Country Doctor” not only argues for the recognition of the ethical rewards of rural doctoring but also for rural communities to develop and fund their own medical facilities and staff in order to attract young modern doctors like the featured Dr. Ceriani.

As this example demonstrates, the publication of photographic essays served many possible interests at once; however, their meaning—upon which such interests depended—were not always univocal or unanimously determined. This can be seen throughout Smith’s career at LIFE as he constantly fought for authorial control equal to that of the editors. Willumson demonstrates Smith’s commitment to his projects by citing insightful letters written to his mother while on assignment, involvement with the individuals photographed, prolific note-taking, accumulation of thousands of negatives, and his determination to accurately represent his perspective in the final publication.

With a studied understanding of the editorial process, Smith attempted to make his photographs convey his interpretation as much as possible before submitting them. By publishing Smith’s contact sheets, Willumson examines Smith’s careful manipulation of his photographs. Repeated shot’s of the same scene reveal Smith’s posing of his subjects in order to create a certain interpretive effect, as in having Spanish soldiers in “Spanish Village” face the sun and shooting from a low camera angle. The result, showing the stern-faced soldiers in harsh contrast, contributes to Smith’s condemnation of Franco’s military dictatorship. When making his own prints—an uncommon practice for photojournalists—Smith would darken, lighten, or bleach areas to enhance both the emotion and interpretation of the work, claiming he was justified “if the rearranging that I have done is of the spirit and the truth of the actuality.” While such techniques should not shock those familiar with photojournalistic practice, they are questionable given the rhetoric of “truth” surrounding such work. Yet at the same time, as Willumson points out, these activities reflect on Smith’s active desire for control in the contest of meaning.

Motivated by his moral and ethical beliefs, Smith did not measure a project’s success by personal recognition or praise, but rather by its ability to affect public opinion or helped those photographed. “Spanish Village,” in fact, received much attention form the photographic and artistic communities, yet Smith ultimately considered it a failure, feeling that LIFE’s final presentation of it watered down his anti-Franco statement. Centering on the efforts of missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer and his hospital at Lambrene in French Equatorial Africa, “A Man of Mercy” was Smith’s last project for LIFE, leading to his final resignation. A great admirer of Schwietzer’s humanitarian actions and writings, Smith initiated this project with great enthusiasm, yet ran into serious problems once on assignment. Not only did Schweitzer restrict what kinds of scenes Smith could shoot, preferring to pose himself in his own prescribed positions, but Smith found contradictions between Schweitzer’s personal interactions and his humanitarian ideals. After delayed production, deadline and competition pressure caused LIFE to publish “A Man if Mercy” on November 15, 1954, knowing that Smith was unsatisfied with its reduced length and had threatened to resign if it went to print.

Though Smith’s work was well received in his lifetime—he did achieve and unprecedented degree of freedom and decision-making power regarding his work—he was rarely satisfied. After his resignation, he worked irregularly facing the same authorial difficulties he had encountered at LIFE. Some consider him a tragic artist desperately struggling to realize his vision of truth, while others perceive him as a victim of his own liberal humanism, which made him unwilling to negotiate within the mass-audience institution in which he chose to work. Willumson treats Smith with obvious respect, while also exploring his subject with a deserved criticality. At times, it seems Willumson does not take it far enough, though, stopping short of fully delving into the important issues of representation and power that his topic demands. In this regard, Willumson’s book often makes Smith’s story seem more of a clash of egos than a conflict of ideology. Considering the institutional and discursive specificity of much of the book, it concludes on a somewhat too individualistic note, leaving Smith as a victim of his own personality and idealism. These relatively minor criticisms aside, more photographic studies like this one are much needed and long overdue.

Mark Frohman is an artist and art critic for Public News, an alternative newsweekly in Houston.