A personal hero: W. Eugene Smith, or Two Degrees of Separation

This is a man I wish I had met. I worked for a small bi-weekly suburban newspaper in North Jersey. I got to cover everything: sports, store openings, mall events, portraits. But my editor met Smith at the International Center for Photography and, after a presentation. She walked up to him, clutched his hand, and said “Thank you.” I believe that’s all anyone who looked at Smith’s career work could say. From his World War II photographs, through his images of the country doctor in Idaho, the midwife in South Carolina, and his images of Pittsburgh and New York through the broken glass of his midtown loft…he created black-and-white images that took the dark and made it resonate and shimmer, and most of all the shattering images of Minamata, the Japanese fishing village near Nagasaki that had suffered mercury poisoning because of random chemical dumping…these are unforgettable.

Smith himself created and survived two broken marriages and several other relationships. He certainly was no saint. He was a alcoholic who also used megadoses of amphetamines to stay awake through printing sessions that could last up to three days. He was a womanizer. In spite of it all, his eye and artistry did not fail him. For years I wanted to be Gene Smith. I may have been dissipated but not nearly as talented.

As far as I know, Gene Smith never drank absinthe. It wasn’t available back then. When he died in October 1978, it was from a stroke in a supermarket. He fell and bashed his head into the shelving. He was 59 years old but looked 25 years older.

At the 1985 Smith retrospective the the Philadelphia Museum, people stopped in front of the Minamata photographs, wept, and gasped. I was one of them. I’d seen them before the huge prints in the Philadelphia Museum but getting up close brought them home with incredible power.

I believe the photo below, “Tomoko in her Bath,” was pulled from the official Smith corpus at the request of Tomoko Uemura’s family. If someone asks me to drop my copy, I will do it.

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