TEN W. EUGENE SMITH PHOTOGRAPHS

Copyright for all photographs published here rests with the artist or with his Estate.

First, one must understand that for me, as for almost every other individual growing up in the 1950s who was interested in photography, W. Eugene Smith was considered the greatest living photographer by far. We had marveled at his LIFE photo-essays, which also helpfully kept pointing his talents out to its vast audience. And the various photography magazines were then heavily dominated by journalism and commercial photographic practices; and tended to publish articles titled “The World’s 10 Greatest Photographers,” etc., and W. Eugene Smith was always the first name to be brought out as the leading exemplar of creative practice in the field. At the time few museums collected photographs, fewer universities taught it as a fine-art. Photography was though by the art establishment to be a craft, or at best a semi-creative profession, and only a handful of photographers had any higher “artistic” pretensions. Smith was unusual in that he successfully co-mingled his extraordinary professional skills with a compelling creative aspiration; often lifting, through the force and beauty of his work, his professional tasks into works of creative art. His stubborn insistence that he could and should do so in the face of the system he worked within had cost him severely, both materially and emotionally, and his personal story had made him legendary among those people who followed these issues. And Smith’s liberal-humanist beliefs, which he so powerfully conveyed through his essays, also struck a responsive chord in my young mind.

In fact, my first formal photohistory lecture was on Gene Smith, in Len Gittleman’s beginning photography class at Harvard University. Interest in the visual media of film and photography was running red-hot among students in the US universities at the time and Gittleman, who taught the only course in photography at the university, had courageously allocated one of his precious twelve positions available for the class to me, a lowly employee of the university, instead of to any one of the two hundred or so legitimate students who had applied for the position. Gittleman required that each student in his class give a talk about an established photographer to the rest of the class. When my turn came, I loaded a book-truck up with about twenty bound volumes of LIFE magazines containing Smith’s photo-essays, wheeled the truck across the campus, and did a show and tell by opening and spreading these folio-sized magazines all over the large table that the class gathered around for these talks. (I could get away with this, as I was in charge of the circulation desk at the University library, and so had a privileged position vis-a-vis the issue of dragging a book-truck load of magazines around the Harvard Yard.) Later I became active in discovering the history of photography and, through several unusual circumstances, wound up teaching it part-time at Harvard and at Tufts University and elsewhere while still working at the library. Later, growing bored with librarianship, I left the university and became involved in teaching photographic history on a full-time basis. I was teaching at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY when I was offered the job to go to Tucson and help Gene Smith put his archive collection together at the newly organized Center for Creative Photography.

Of course I accepted the job. I had thought that it was my resume, experience and charming personality that had got me the job and only when I arrived did I realize the truth. An administrative quirk at the University of Arizona meant that the position had to be offered to a professional librarian – and I happened to have that degree. The only other available candidate had been a young woman who was described as fairly “frail.” On the other hand, I was 6 ft. 3 in. tall, and weighed in at 210 pounds, and when I got to the university I was immediately faced with 44,000 pounds of stuff ranging from extraordinarily beautiful photographs to what seemed to be street litter (requiring over 3,000 square feet of storage space) stuffed into hundreds of boxes that had been hastily stored in whatever available locations that could be found around the campus. I was told the reason we knew that there was 44,000 pounds of stuff was that the eighteen-wheeler bringing it all from New York had been stopped for being overloaded at a weigh station somewhere in the Midwest, and the shipment had then been split into two loads on two trucks for the remainder of the trip. When I got there these materials were scattered all over the place and in the most chaotic disorder imaginable, and they were being anxiously and jealously defended by a grizzled old man who otherwise seemed barely able to stay upright for any great length of time.

Some additional backstory is necessary here. When first founded, the Center for Creative Photography was established with a very interesting premise. Initially, John Schaefer, the then President of the university, an ardent amateur photographer and Ansel Adams enthusiast, had wanted to acquire Ansel Adams photographs for the university. Adams, or his representatives, countered with a different proposal. He suggested that, instead of just collecting his photographs or any other random groups of photographs, that they start by collecting the complete archives of five or six of the major living photographers who formed a generation which, mostly by working in relative obscurity from the 1930s up to the fairly recent present, had regenerated or sustained the creative photography movement in the United States. The suggested artists were Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Frederick Sommer. W. Eugene Smith was soon added to this core group. If Smith seems out of place in this listing of Modernist practitioners, please remember his role in raising photojournalism to an art form and the fact that during the second half of his career he had established himself as a “creative” photographer with those individual’s intent on establishing a new paradigm for American photography.

Adams’ plan was that the Center would collect a complete set of “master prints” of these individuals, as well as other work or study prints, correspondence, documents and all other pertinent materials from the artist. The artist, still living, would actually reap the benefit of their own work. (For example, Aaron Siskind, who had retired into a rather gentile poverty after a lifetime of teaching, was very grateful to the Center – in that the deal allowed him to travel broadly to keep extending his photographic vision until his death.) Each deal was different for the different artists. For example, Sommer, who has made and retained a very limited number of prints over his career, would have a very different type of contract than Smith, who, as previously noted, managed to bring 44,000 pounds of stuff to Arizona.

Smith’s deal, very roughly defined, was that he was to move to Arizona to teach as a full professor in the even more recently established photography section of the Fine Arts Department. (Harold Jones, after functioning as the first Director of the Center, had moved to the Fine Arts department to establish a MFA program in creative photography there – a move perhaps made to buttress the need for the museum of photography that had been summarily imposed upon the university by the enthusiastic President Schaefer.) Smith was also promised, or he thought he was promised, assistance to initiate a publishing program for Sensorium, a journal on the visual arts which he had attempted to start in the 1960s, and possibly for his own long-deferred semi-autobiographical “Big Book.” As part of the deal he was to select 200 “master prints” each year, over an extended period of years, for the Center’s collections, and also edit, sort and organize the other materials for their eventual transfer to his archive.

The size of W. Eugene Smith’s oeuvre is hard to comprehend. Gene Smith’s mother once publicly stated that he had made 40,000 images before he was twenty-one, and I later found that statement to be almost believable. And he continued to photograph at a prodigious rate for another thirty-five years after that. For Gene Smith, the finished work of art was not a single photographic print, but a complete photographic essay, which, for him, sometimes extended into hundreds of individual images about that story. He worked as a photojournalist who took hundreds of photographs to create his photographic essay, which he always felt was larger and more complete than it was possible to publish in any magazine of that time, he was never satisfied with any published version of his essays. Thus, whenever he could afford to do so, he printed up as many as five or six sets of 11 x 14 inch prints of the more complete version of the essay that he felt he had created.

When Smith came to Arizona one of his intentions was to sort through the collection of thousands of prints to determine which were, in his opinion, “master prints” representing the best of his vision, ideation, and technical skills. By agreement the Center of Creative Photography would then purchase a few hundred of these “master prints” each year until they had collected a complete set of “master prints” of his work. (Smith had estimated that there ultimately would be roughly several thousand prints in this collection, and, although at the time no one thought that the number would be that high, in fact his estimate was correct.) By the terms of the same agreement with the Center, Smith’s negatives, contact sheets, examples of his “work prints” and “study prints”, his book dummies and magazine layouts, his tear-sheets, his papers, his personal and business files, his memorabilia, books, magazines, records and audiotapes would all go into the “W. Eugene Smith Archives” as he released them, or at his death. So, originally, the terms “master print,” “study print,” “work print” were simply technical definitions which allowed the Center to handle the large collections of archival materials it possessed in an expeditious manner.

Unfortunately Gene Smith had a near-fatal stroke soon after arriving in Arizona, a stroke so bad that most people thought he would never walk or talk again. Yet within a year, although severely incapacitated, he was walking and talking and driving himself to meet those obligations he felt he had to the University of Arizona: planning and teaching classes, overseeing the construction of a darkroom, putting together a “Faculty Exhibit” the university had innocently asked from him, planning the revival of his magazine Sensorium, thinking about finishing and publishing his semiautobiographical Big Book, and sorting through the dozens of cartons containing his prints jumbled together with everything else he owned.

The newly-founded Center for Creative Photography was then located in a former bank building, complete with its own vault, located on a commercial street which dead-ended at the west side of the main University of Arizona campus. One portion of Smith’s materials were being stored on campus in a nearby building, which is now the elegant Arizona State Museum (North). (See photo on-line, if you care.), but which at that time was apparently awaiting renovation for the School of Anthropology, and which was mostly being used to store thousands of bags of dirt filled with the shattered fragments of pots which were locked behind wire cages in an otherwise seemingly unused building. This was a large building with a basketball court in the center front of the building, with several large open work spaces located behind the court, then all the shelves of carefully ordered bags of dirt, behind the locked cages. The front area of this building had been sectioned off to hold Smith’s materials and I never saw anyone else in the building either in the daytime or at night during the couple of years I worked there sorting through the materials. When I arrived the basketball court area was literally covered with dozens of cardboard boxes piled to a waist-high level, with narrow pathways winding between them. These boxes were filled with a random assortment of Smith’s smaller photographs, negatives, equipment, tools, slides, pots and pans and the like. None of these boxes were identified in any way, nor were they in any order. I found Gene Smith wandering around the basketball court, straining to open random boxes in his search for his teaching slides which he wanted to use for the class “Photography Made Difficult” he was scheduled to give when school started in the Fall. The near-fatal stroke Smith had suffered soon after arriving in Tucson the year before, and from which he was not fully recovered, had made even this task difficult for him. Smith was a badly-damaged man, suffering from the consequences of a terrible, almost fatal stroke from which most people had thought he would not recover, and living in the unfinished aftermath of what must have been one of the most chaotic moves ever attempted by any individual. He was fifty-nine years old but looked like he was eighty.

Portrait of Gene Smith, 1978, Copyright by Day Williams. Day Williams was a MFA student at the university who had been designated Smith’s assistant.

Gene Smith had a cane to help him walk and a straw cowboy hat, which was all the protection he took against the brutal sun and the 100 degree plus temperatures of summertime Arizona. He could not drive a car anymore, and there really wasn’t much public transportation or much of any other familiar lifestyle options available to this former New York City dweller. His palate, damaged from his World War II wounding, the physical damage from the beating he took in Minamata Japan, the near-fatal stroke had left him almost voiceless and groping for words that he once knew well – and yet he was indomitable, walking around the campus with a Nikon camera around his neck with a plastic milk bottle-top as a lens cover, groping through tons of stuff to put together his initial lectures, sorting through his thousands of photographs to supply the “Master Prints” owed to the Center as he selected other groups of prints to go to his other dependents, while also planning his first faculty exhibition at the University, setting up a darkroom and hoping to start his long-planned and long-deferred creative photography magazine and revive his dormant “Big Book Project.” He had understood that these projects would be supported by the University and felt responsible that his stroke and subsequent illness had kept him from initiating them at once and fearful that if he lost control of the situation he would lose this opportunity to complete these long-deferred projects. His body was that of a frail old man, but his will was prodigious, just stunning. I soon found myself in awe of this cranky, difficult, and amazing man who had engendered so many legends during his lifetime. I began to try to help him find his slides for the lectures and other things he needed, and even built him a bed/cot frame in the auditorium so that he could lie down and rest during the heat of the day. I generally tried to be as helpful as possible, as I attempted to develop an overview of where and what all this stuff was.

The second body of Smith’s materials was stored about ten miles away from the campus in one building of an abandoned public school near the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which was located south of the city proper. This military base was one stop on a training route for military jet fighter pilots flying from base to base situated around the country; and during the winter months one or (more often) a pair of jet fighters would be landing there every hour or so, all day long.

Jet fighters landing at sunset, Tucson, Az.” Copyright by Harold Jones. Harold Jones was the first Director of the Center for Creative Photography, then he became the Chairman of the Photography Section of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Arizona.

These fighters approached the base from the north and their glide path, as they slowed to almost stalling speeds to land these planes, was over the city. The pair of fighters drifting down over the city became a familiar part of everyday life in Tucson. I’ve been told by Robert Heinecken, an ex-Marine Corps fighter pilot, that just flying jet fighters was automatically a dangerous activity as the jets were intrinsically unstable, and that if they lost power they had the aerodynamics of a brick. There had been several accidents in Tucson over the years. (In fact, I was working in the Center one day when I heard a loud boom, and running outside, saw a huge column of black smoke. A fighter jet had flamed out while landing and the pilot had, at great personal risk, guided the plane into a street in the middle of the city, barely managing to miss a nearby school, before ejecting from the plane at far too low an altitude.) Apparently this sort of thing had happened at least once before, with a plane crashing in the playground of a grade-school complex located near the airbase’s landing path. At that time the southern edge of Tucson was still a few miles away from the air force base and some clever and forward-thinking town manager had built a fine new modern grade school for the expanding city on that open land. Which plan worked well until a fighter jet suddenly landed in the playground swings. So the pupils were moved somewhere else and the buildings closed. The State then turned that small campus of several one-story brick buildings into a locked, fenced-in storage facility, and rented or loaned some of these spaces to the University. The Center had grabbed some space in this otherwise empty facility when the second truckload of Smith’s materials showed up.

Actually, I remember rather vividly the day on one of my visits to the otherwise unpeopled site, when I stood there unlocking the gated fence to this facility and watching two Marine Corps jets in the final stages of their landing, flying much too low and much too slow to do any maneuvering, then seeing a piper cub plane meandering directly toward them from the southwest. I calculated that the three planes would come together about forty feet directly over my head sometime within the next three or four minutes, and so I just stood there calmly waiting to die; until some frantic radio operator got through to the piper cub and he jerked away about three hundred feet short of the collision. Just another near-miss, probably not even officially reported.

The storage space rented by the Center had once been a school-band practice room, with a semi-circular floor of stepped levels where the students sat and played, and with a smaller lockable room located inside the larger room. Dozens of large boxes filled with Smith’s huge collection of records, audiotapes, books and magazines were haphazardly piled up in this space; in some instances, stacked in piles higher than my head. These things may have been in the second truckload that had been put together after the weight-station stop. Also, the large retrospective exhibition of hundreds of framed prints that Smith himself had organized for the Jewish Museum, and which was then sent to tour Japan, then returned to the US in their wooden crates were placed there. This last was significant, because in the confusions of moving and his first stroke Smith had never been told or he had forgotten that this location existed, and it was only during a casual conversation with him one day that I realized that for months he had thought that all these materials had been lost during the move. I immediately checked out a pick-up truck from the university and drove him down there and at least relieved him of that worry.

The third body of materials were all the potential “master print” photographs. I did not see them at first, as Smith, with his long-held and possibly justified paranoia about all individuals in authority, had had an argument with the Center’s Director, and had removed them all from the bank vault to his rented ranch-style house in the outskirts of the city; where he was sorting them to decide which were to go to the Center and which were to go to his family and others. During his entire lifetime, when Smith was flush with money or resources and time he printed multiple copies of his favorite photographs, usually to an average size of 10” x 13” inches, and then mounted them on 16” x 20” boards. He did this for some of his early Black Star, pre-LIFE work, for several exhibitions of the World War II photographs, for many, if not all, of his LIFE essays, and, less completely, for work he accomplished after his career at LIFE. In some cases, as in the Pittsburg essay, he made at least six complete mounted sets, each consisting of at least 300 separate prints. However, there were times when he could not afford to do this with his work, and his essays in Haiti and Japan and later were not so completely documented. Nevertheless there were literally thousands of mounted prints or prints approximately 10” x 13” or better that Smith was sorting through in his house at the time of his death.

Smith had a second, fatal, stroke two or three months after I came to Arizona, while searching in the heat for some of his cats that had escaped from the house. After he died I checked out a 16 ft. open-bed stake truck from the university, gathered several students together, and we went over to his house and removed all the photographic prints. Smith had been renting a typical one-level ranch-style house, with a connected living-dining room, a bedroom, kitchen, bath, and with the attached open-sided carport that was standard for that area. He had furnished the house minimally with a bed, a couple of chairs, and a food processor for the smoothies, (Which, because of his damaged mouth, were all he could eat.) and with very little else. The story of the many cats that got so out of control and which had so damaged the rugs and drapes of the place that Smith was being evicted by his landlady is already known, but I will state that the entire place was a scene of even more chaos than that found at the other locations. The entire floor and almost every other horizontal surface of the house, except for the bathroom which was covered in cat feces, was crowded with dozens of one or two-foot high piles of photographs, with narrow paths winding through them. There was even a foot-high stack of photographs sitting between the burners of the gas stove, over the (fortunately) covered pilot light. It seems, from the arrangement of these piles of photographs, that Smith was attempting to make groups of prints to fit different purposes, or to go to different individuals. But there was no apparent system or order to the groups, other than Smith’s possible intentions, and any information or understanding of his intended purpose for these piles died with Smith’s death. After the students and I emptied the house and filled the back of the stake-bed truck with dozens of carrying cases of the photographs and as I was just about to drive away, I thought to check in the little closet-like utility tool-room located in one corner of the open-sided carport attached to the house, where I found several hundred more photographs piled up inside this barely weatherproof cubbyhole.

The previous agreement was abruptly terminated by his death, and suddenly the Center had to restructure its arrangement for the Smith archive. Smith had made a will, and its instructions came into play. By the terms of the will, the “master prints” made by Smith were to be divided among the Center (which would buy them all at once from the Estate, instead of over many years as had been the previous plan.), the Estate of W. Eugene Smith, (Which consisted of his first wife and their three children. John Morris was the Executor of the Estate and the person representing the Estate that I dealt with most often during this time, although I also met Pat Smith and his wife Phillis several times.), Aileen Smith, (His second wife.) and Sherri Surris, (The woman who had come to Arizona with him.)

Aileen Smith was to receive 200 “master prints,” and she had the absolute right of first selection from the prints. In theory she could have taken every available “Walk to Paradise Garden,” or all the copies of any other photograph she fancied, but she gave over the right of first selection to the Center, and when she chose her prints, she selected only one copy of each image. (I should mention here that a fourth group of prints also existed, kept separate from all the other prints throughout this entire process, which consisted of the photographs from the “Minamata essay” on industrial pollution which Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith had worked on together in Japan. Again, by the will, that body of work was owned by Aileen Smith and although stored at the Center, those materials were from the beginning handled separately from the main body of Smith’s earlier work.)

Sherri Surris was then to select her choice of 200 master prints.

The Estate of W. Eugene Smith was to receive all remaining “Master Prints,” as well as the cash payment from the Center for those which it had selected and purchased.

Everything else left in Arizona: the negatives, contact sheets, work prints, papers, the books and magazines and record collections, everything that was not designated a “master print,” would automatically go to the Center as part of the “study print” or “work print” collection in the Smith Archive.

After Smith’s death I collected and dispersed the cameras, tools, and other personal possessions as directed to Smith’s heirs and acquaintances. But my primary task was to bring some coherent order to the entire collection, then attempt to identify and bring all the images in the same essays together, then bring all copies of a specific image together so that the provisions of the will could then be carried out. So I began the task of locating, identifying, and sorting the various photographs while also sorting out and organizing all of the other random materials. For example, I mentioned that Smith had been using a milk-bottle cap as a lens hood on his Nikon camera when I first met him. After a year of winnowing through everything I had filled up a 16” x 16” x 20” box completely full of dozens of lens caps for many different types of cameras, some of them long obsolete – but none, unfortunately, for a Nikon.

More importantly, I had located and sorted all the potential “master print” photographs into some order. It was not easy, as there never was a complete or even adequate record of any part of the collection. And while Smith was one of the most famous photographers to the general public and the broad outlines of his career were well-known, there was no accurate chronology of his career in print, especially after his period at LIFE magazine. There was no real scholarly monograph on Smith. Furthermore, to most people he was known for perhaps a score of images which had been republished again and again over the years; as this was the practice of the journals and photographic history books at the time. That left thousands of photographs in this collection which were undated and unidentified; therefor it became necessary for me to attempt to identify the prints from Smith’s own unorganized and incomplete personal files and to embark on a detailed bibliographic search to attempt to create a more complete chronology of his career and of his work. Thus, almost by default, I became a sort of Smith scholar, tracing and identifying which prints belonged in which essays and thus tracking the development of his photographic vision and of his career.

It took almost a year, often working sixteen-hour stretches, to sort everything into the groups that could be used to identify the master prints and bring them into an order where they could be selected by the various parties designated by Gene Smith’s will. (My fiancé was in Boston, I felt that hanging out in a bar drinking beer and playing pool, which was the local dominant leisure activity, was boring, and the materials I was sorting through were fascinating; and so I was free and open to the idea of working very long hours.)

A late evening, after a rainstorm, in the Smith Collection sorting area in the Anthropology building. Photographer unknown.

“6 A. M., Sunday Morning, Center for Creative Photography,” copyright by Day Williams. Normally I did not sort prints on the floor, but the Pittsburgh essay had so many prints in it that I needed the space, so I waited for the Center to close on Saturday evening, then I brought those prints over from the Anthropology building and began to sort out the individual images. I worked all night and was just finishing up when Day Williams, who had been photographing around Tucson that night saw the lights on in the building and came over to investigate. I let him in, and he made this photograph. Then I packed the prints up again and took them back to the workspace in the Anthropology building.

At this point I was employed by the Center but was necessarily also working pro bono for all the other beneficiaries of the will as well; as no one could receive their portion until everything was sorted and brought into order. There was a degree of pressure from everyone to resolve all this as soon as possible, as some of Smith’s children needed money rather urgently and everyone involved wanted to get through the process as soon as possible. With Smith gone, everyone involved agreed that the task of designating what constituted a “master-print” should fall upon the Director of the Center James Enyart. As the only guideline that could be inferred from Smith’s actions was that he had been sorting through the dry-mounted prints on the 16” x 20” boards when he was still alive; that size of photograph was taken as the first guideline to designate a master print. This meant that the seven or eight thousand prints of 5” x 7” or similar size were designated “study prints” and would automatically go into the Center’s collections. Some of these prints were lovely, but it had to be inferred that, at least for everything up to and including his Pittsburgh essay, Smith had already during his lifetime selected and printed up and maintained, (In spite of the chaotic order.) multiple copies of those images he felt strongly about. This “documenting” of his own work was far less complete after Pittsburgh, but he still had hundreds of larger prints for his major bodies of later work. So there were still literally thousands of the larger prints to deal with. My sorting process was to bring all copies of the same image printed up to about 10” x 13” or larger together into a single pile. At times Smith had placed a negative in his enlarger and then printed a half-stop at a time up and down from what would become the ideal print, so in some cases there could be a pile of twenty-odd prints of the same image, of varying quality. Five or six or more of the prints in this pile would be of sufficient quality that they could be designated “master prints”, the remainder became “study prints” or “work prints” and would automatically become part of the Center’s collections. At other times there might be only one or two prints from an image that was in Smith’s possession at his death.

After everything was sorted, the Director and I went through the photographs together, essay by essay, print by print, and he would, with me providing any information if needed, select the “best” print for the Center, then determine how many of the other prints were good enough to be labeled “master prints.” I don’t remember the exact number now, but the Center selected somewhere in the range of 3000 individual “master prints” to purchase from the Estate, which still left thousands of prints for the others to select from.

Then Aileen Smith flew into Tucson and she and I went through the prints as she selected her 200 choices. My role was to present the prints to be viewed in a coherent order, record potential selections, answer any questions about their history that I might have found out during the year, and just be helpful in general. This process took about a week or two of concentrated work, talking about the prints, and recording the selections.

Then Sherrie Surris came back to town and took her turn, selecting her 200 prints.

At this point, something surprising and quite wonderful happened. All this organizing of the materials took more than a year of intense, often sixteen-hour days, of work by me – work that I suppose could have been considered beyond my obligations to the letter of my job description. Apparently there had been some discussion among the members of the estate with Aileen and Sherrie about giving me some prints for all the help I had been giving to them. I don’t know who first brought up the idea, and each handled the matter differently, but Sherrie was the first to give me a print from her selection. Sherrie had selected the specific print without my knowing her intentions, and then had to petition the others to allow her to choose it, because the particular image from the Nurse-Midwife essay was one of only two master prints of that image. The Center had the first print, and other beneficiaries had priority of choice over Surris for the second print. But everyone agreed to defer their right in this case and Surris was able to select that print and then give it to me. I had not expected this to happen and I was completely surprised, and further surprised that Surris had picked up from our general conversations that I loved this portrait of Maude Callens so much.

Gene Smith had indicated to me that the “Nurse Midwife” essay was one of his favorites. Maude Callens had spent her adult life daily facing and overcoming extraordinary obstacles and issues while delivering medical assistance and aid to the poorest residents of the rural, racist, segregated South. Smith had worked very hard to craft a photographic essay which he thought could stand up to the quality of the character that he had found in Maude Callens. And he was proud that his LIFE story had unleased a flood of financial support from readers which enabled the construction of a new, modern medical clinic for Maude. I, too, was moved by this woman, and by Smith’s beautiful, compassionate and moving photographs of her.

Maude Callen training another nurse midwife assisting a birth. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. “Nurse Midwife. Maude Callen Eases Pain of Birth, Life and Death.” LIFE 31:23 (Dec. 3, 1851): 134-145.

The Estate and Aileen had each also decided to give me a print for helping them during this long process. Their conversation or decision had not been revealed to me and each gift happened separately. But both the Estate and Aileen at some point during these procedures informed me to select any print I wanted from the available collection.
Suddenly I had become the possible owner of a small collection, however tiny, of the work of an artist that I loved. Presented with this situation, my wonderful problem then became a curatorial issue. It constituted a tough decision that museum curators frequently have to face. Which one or two images does one select from the body of work of any artist to represent that artist’s work? I was not selecting to balance a collection as a curator must often do; nevertheless, some factors had to come into play as I thought about the issues. First, I was not interested in turning the photograph into cash. For me these were treasured items that I would hope to keep in my home and on my walls as long as I could do so. Thus I didn’t necessarily want a “Walk to Paradise Garden’ or a “Spanish Spinner” or anything with an established market value. (If you don’t already know this, it is a dirty secret that in the commercial world certain photographs by an artist are worth more than others. They are not necessarily even the best ones by that artist, but images that by some accident or other, have become established in the marketplace.) For example, at a later stage of this entire process, when I was showing the Estate prints to one of several art-dealers who had come to Tucson to evaluate the collection for a potential offer to purchase; this individual was rather crassly muttering aloud, “…$1000, $1000, $1000, $3000, $1000, $1000….” as we flipped through the prints. Curious, I asked him why he estimated the one so much more than the others. “It was on the cover of the Aperture monograph…” he replied. I told him that I knew for a fact that the publisher had selected that print for the cover and printed it in spite of Smith’s angry insistence that he wanted a different image. “Doesn’t matter…” was the reply. In fact, several of the prints I selected were not among the prints published in Smith’s essays.

Another of Smith’s major essays that had struck a deep emotional response from me was the “Spanish Village.” When John Morris, the Smith Estate executor, and I were going through the prints together, for some reason I went into a long, involved, and excited commentary on this print. Later he offered it to me and I accepted it. I selected this print rather than some more famous images because I felt that Smith had summed up the lingering weight of Spain’s feudal history, with its connections to the land and its rigid social hierarchies in one superb image, and that it also encapsulated the dominant idea that Gene Smith had wanted to convey in his essay about the impacts of the past upon present-day Spain. The print was never published previously because Smith made it as he was driving around Spain to familiarize himself with his subject, as was his practice, and while it is an iconic image of the theme he eventually developed for his essay, it was not near the actual village that he finally chose to photograph.

Harvesting grain, copyright by W. Eugene Smith. “Spanish Village. It Lives in Ancient Poverty and Faith.” LIFE 30:15 (Apr. 9, 1951): 120-129.

For Aileen’s gift I selected a photograph from Schweitzer’s hospital in Africa. Gene Smith had said that the essay never reached publication in anything like its complete form, and as I had had the unique privilege of locating, reassembling, and studying the scores of photographs that Smith had made into his version of the essay, I felt that Smith had indeed reached a creative high point in his art while working on this essay. The work is subtle, humane, passionate, and compellingly beautiful, and, in my opinion, a defining masterwork of the humanistic photographic essay, a genre which briefly held a dominant position in the leading edge of creative photographic practice after World War II. For me, Schweitzer’s Africa held a key position in both Smith’s work and in the history of the medium.


Nurse with flowers, patient’s funeral in Africa, copyright by W. Eugene Smith. “A Man of Mercy. Africa’s misery turns saintly Albert Schweitzer into a driving taskmaster.” LIFE 37:20 (Nov. 15, 1854): 161-172.

After the Center for Creative Photography, Aileen Smith and Sherrie Surris had made their selections, as mandated by the will, the remainder of the Master Prints then belonged to the Estate, but they were continued to be held at the Center for practical and administrative reasons. The beneficiaries of the estate had each selected a handful of favorite photos, but the bulk of the collection, which still consisted of thousands of master prints, was then offered for sale as a unit to a few dealers. At this time photography was just beginning to have a serious market value, with auction houses and a few dealers specializing in the medium. The Estate wanted to sell the entire collection of Estate prints at once, rather than selling it off piecemeal. Over the next few months several dealers came to Tucson to look through the collection to be prepared to make an offer. As part of the cooperation between the CCP and the Estate, I would show the prints to these dealers whenever one would show up. Some dealers would show up and just leaf through everything rapidly and then leave. A few spent more time and energy looking at the prints.

The dealer who actually purchased the collection from the Estate was Ken Heyman. Heyman was himself a known photojournalist who had had essays published in LIFE and had a book or two illustrated with his photographs of children, and who simply loved Gene Smith’s work. I was told that he had “family money,” which owned some of the largest copper mines in Arizona. Heyman bought the collection for what was reported to be the first million-dollar deal in photography, and then he opened a very elegant photography sales gallery called PHOTOGRAPH at 724 Fifth Ave., in New York to sell them. I had spent several weeks going through the collections with him and his assistant. Somehow hearing that the others had given me some prints for my help, he asked me to choose a print for my time and help and he said that he would mail it back to me after the collection was inventoried in New York. I selected another photograph from the essay on Schweitzer, simply because I loved the image. Ken did in fact send the print as well as Suris’s gift, (Which he had held for some obscure administrative reason.) to me several months later, as he promised.

Leper in Sun Helmet, copyright by W. Eugene Smith. “A Man of Mercy. Africa’s misery turns saintly Albert Schweitzer into a driving taskmaster.” LIFE 37:20 (Nov. 15, 1854): 161-172.

In terms of building my own little collection, I now had images from three of Smith’s major essays, images which displayed his narrative skills, his compassion, and his sense of the beautiful form. At this point I thought that would be all the photographs that would ever be available to me. But Aileen Smith had another idea. Because she appreciated my efforts with her collection and because she shared my love of Smith’s photographs she separately gave me two prints from the last major photoessay that Smith worked on, the industrial poisoning in Minanmata, Japan. These photos helped lead the fight for justice for the victims, bringing the story to a world-wide audience through exhibitions, articles and a pioneering book on industrial pollution.

Tomoko in Bath. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Aileen Smith, who had married Gene in Japan to be respectable in the eyes of their conservative Japanese neighbors and colleagues as they were working together on the industrial pollution essay at Minamata; was, by the terms of the will, the sole owner of the photographs from that essay. The Minamata essay prints were also being stored at the CCP and she asked me to sort and organize that collection as well, as she was living in Japan, and had had to fly back and forth several times during this period of time. Aileen had already given me a copy of “Flags of vengeance” and a print of “Tomoko in the bath.” She then offered to pay me to organize her collection after I had finished with the first round of activity; and we agreed that I would take a few hundred dollars in cash and four more prints from the Minamata essay as payment for doing this job for her. So on the weekends over the next few months I sorted and organized that collection for her.

When I came to choose the prints from that essay I was faced with the decision of how to encapsulate the depth and complexity of a major photographic essay consisting of hundreds of photographs with just six images, two of which I already had been given. The work of art for Gene Smith was the sustained photographic essay, not just any individual prints within it, so for the remaining four images I hoped to choose some that conveyed the breadth of the narrative of the Minamata story, as well as being strong prints in themselves.

I selected one of Aileen’s prints and three others by Gene Smith. These photographs were not necessarily the most famous images in that essay, but they do refer to several of the main points of the Minamata narrative of disaster and protest, retribution, and eventual restitution.

There was another consideration as I made these selections. I had noticed just how important the hands and the gestures that people made were to Gene Smith throughout his career. I had already, within the very limited opportunities available, selected several prints that featured this interest. When I chose the Minamata images I thought it important to include an image of the twisted and crippled hands of a mercury-poisoned victim, photographed with such power by Smith; even though it was a poor choice from an economic point of view.

Fishing in Minamata Bay. Copyright by Aileen Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Fish for lunch. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Iwazo Funaba, Poison Victim. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Shinobu Sakamoto, poison victim, Dressing for school. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

Flags of Vengeance, Minamata Protest. Copyright by W. Eugene Smith. Minamata, by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

So, in addition to having the wonderful opportunity to meet and work with a great artist and a personal hero, followed by the extraordinary experience of spending several years of studying and working with one of the most remarkable collections of photography created by any artist, and that followed by several years of being able to bring a more complete picture of that work to the general public through several exhibitions and books, I have also had, through the unusual and kind efforts of individuals who I came to admire and respect, the luck to have a small collection of wonderful art hanging on my walls, and which I can always draw great pleasure and joy from any time I look up from this computer.

I later had to turn away from Smith to pursue other projects, and meet other wonderful artists and individuals during a long period of engagement with the multiple histories in photography, but I have always treasured the time that I spent working with this collection and with this artist.

EXHIBITIONS

“W. Eugene Smith: A Memorial Exhibition.” (Nov. 12, 1978 ‑ Jan. 5, 1979) Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. (74 prints)
A Memorial Exhibition in Honor of W. Eugene Smith. (Nov. 12, 1978 ‑ Jan. 5, 1979). William Johnson. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. 1979. 8 pp.”W. Eugene Smith: Early Work.” (Nov. 15 ‑ Dec. 16, 1980) Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. (110 prints).
W. Eugene Smith: Early Work 1937‑1948 (Nov. 15 ‑ Dec. 16, 1980). William Johnson. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. 16 pp.
“W. Eugene Smith: International Fotofestival Malmo, 1983.” Malmo, Sweden (80 prints, traveled throughout Europe)
“Foto presenterar: W. Eugene Smith.” Foto (Stockholm) 45:7/8 (July/Aug. 1983): 51‑66. 30 b & w. [Also issued as a separate offprint, as the exhibition catalog for the Malmo exhibition.]
“W. Eugene Smith Retrospective Exhibition,” (Jan. 22 ‑ Mar. 17, 1984) Barrett House, Poughkeepsie, NY. (89 prints, from the Smith family collection.)
W. Eugene Smith Retrospective Exhibition. (Jan. 22 ‑ Mar. 17, 1984) William Johnson. Barrett House, Poughkeepsie, NY. 16 pp. 1 b & w, 1 illus.

PUBLICATIONS

“W. Eugene Smith: Early Work.” Center for Creative Photography No. 12 (July 1980): 2‑20, plus a 99 plate portfolio. [Plus added section “W. Eugene Smith. A Chronological Bibliography. Section I, 1934‑1951.” 44 pp. (550 references).

“Deleitosa revisited: Unusual welcome given at location of Smith’s Spanish Village essay.” News Photographer 35:13 (Dec. 1980): 20-23. [Photographer Gary Chapman visited Deletosa, received cold welcome. Prompted “Smith expert discusses essay,” by Johnson on p. 21, “Archives spark interest in noted photographer, pp. 21-22,” with Day William’s photo of Johnson sorting Pittsburgh essay on p. 22, “Fellowship awarded,” on p. 22 and “Publication presents early years,” with portrait of cover, on p. 23.]

“Letters to the Editor: When is a copy an original?” Portfolio. The Magazine of the visual arts. 3:3 (May/June 1981): 96. [Discussion of W. Eugene Smith’s photographic practice.]

W. Eugene Smith: A Chronological Bibliography 1934 ‑ 1980. William S. Johnson. (Center for Creative Photography Bibliography Series no. 1) Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 1981. 165 pp. 1750 plus references. [First issued in two parts: “Part I: 1934‑1952” was included in “W. Eugene Smith: Early Work.” Center for Creative Photography Research Series no. 12 (July 1980) and “Part II: 1952‑1980” was issued as a special supplement to the Research Series no. 13 (Nov. 1981). The two parts were then reissued as no. 1 in the Bibliography Series.]

W. Eugene Smith: Master of the Photographic Essay.
Edited, with commentary, by William S. Johnson. Forward by James L. Enyeart. New York: Aperture, 1981. 224 pp. 1878 b & w. [A modified catalogue raisonné of this artist’s work.]

“Yujin Sumisu: Kamera to tomo ni shakai ni ”taimatso” o kakageta shashinka.” (W. Eugene Smith: A photographer who lit the world with his camera.), pp. 7‑23; “Chronology,” pp. 102‑103; “Bibliography,” pp. 104‑107 in: W. Eugene Smith Exhibition. (Mar. 19 ‑ Mar. 31, 1982) Odakyu Grand Gallery, Tokyo. Pacific Press Service, Tokyo, 1982. 112 pp. 156 b & w, 19 portraits, 11 illus.

W. Eugene Smith. Introduction by William Johnson. (“Photopoche series, 7.” Edited by Robert Delpire.) Paris: Centre National de la Photographie, 1983. viii, 61 plates, 6 pp. 61 b & w.

W. Eugene Smith. Testi di William Johnson. (Series “I grandi fotographie”, edited by Romeo Martinez.) Milan: Gruppo Editoriali Fabbri, 1983. 64 pp. 66 b & w.
“W. Eugene Smith: The Middle Years.” The Archive [“Center for Creative Photography Research Series No. 20”] (July 1984): 4‑18, 54 plate portfolio.

W. Eugene Smith: A Chronological Bibliography. Addendum.
William S. Johnson. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 1984. 72 pp.
“Public Statements/Private Views: Shifting the Ground in the 1950s.” on pp. 81‑92 in: Observations: Essays on Documentary Photography. Edited by David Featherstone. [Untitled No. 35] (1984). [Discussion of Robert Frank and W. Eugene Smith.]

Preliminary research, conception, and layout for Let Truth Be the Prejudice. W. Eugene Smith: His Life and Photographs. With an illustrated biography by Ben Maddow and an afterword by John G. Morris. New York: Aperture, 1985. 240 pp. 250 b & w.

“Focus on America: Portraits of Pittsburgh: The Vision of W. Eugene Smith.” Text by William S. Johnson. USA Today 114:2490 (Mar. 1986): 36‑43. 9 b & w.

Quoted briefly in: “Upfront Images: 150 Years of Photography. Of One Man’s Work. In a lifetime of photos, Eugene Smith aimed for the viewer’s heart,” by Reed Johnson. Times-Union. (Rochester, NY) (Friday, August 25, 1989): C1. 6 b & w.

Primary historical consultant, coordinator of the team making the hundreds of copy prints of Smith’s photographs, and one of the “experts” interviewed in the documentary film, W. Eugene Smith: Photography Made Difficult, produced by Kirk Morris and directed by Gene Laslo. With Peter Reigert as W. Eugene Smith. [Aired in the “American Masters Series” on Public Broadcasting Stations on September 25, 1989 and afterwards. Later released by Kultur DVD (no. D4543), running time 87 minutes.]

“W. Eugene Smith,” by William S. Johnson on pp. 172 –177 in: Original Sources: Art and Archives at the Center for Creative Photography, edited by Amy Rule and Nancy Solomon. Research assistance by Leon Zimlich. Tucson, AZ: Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, 2002. 448 pp.

“Letter to the Editor.” Afterimage 26:3 (Nov./Dec. 2006): 2. [Letter correcting an earlier article’s misconceptions about the role of photojournalists before and during World War II and the misrepresentation of W. Eugene Smith’s activities during that period.]

“Introduction,” on p. 11 in “Volume 3: Essays and Texts.” in: W. Eugene Smith. The Big Book. Foreword by Dr. Katharine Martinez. Introduction by William S. Johnson. Essay by John Berger. Notes by Leslie Squires and Jennifer Jae Gutierrez. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2013. 3 vol., with slipcase.

ENDIT










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