I'm having trouble resolving these feelings

Discussion in 'Photographers' started by Lee Shively, Mar 17, 2005.

  1. Lee Shively

    Lee Shively Member

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    Early on in the 70's I learned of W. Eugene Smith. He was the epitome of the "concerned" photographer. He was famous for his photo essays, highly regarded by photojournalists. I read stories about his obsessiveness with his subjects. I subscribed to Camera 35 when he was given the entire issue to layout photos of his Minimata essay. I read books about his Life magazine essays.

    When I began doing newspaper photography in the mid-70's, Smith was a legend and I wanted to do photo essays like his. He was the photographer I most emulated. I was fairly successful on a very small scale, winning a few state and regional--even a couple of national--press photography contests with my photos. When Smith died in 1978, I mourned for his loss.

    I quit working as a photographer in 1991. Photography became my passion again instead of my job. I began to reassess a lot of what I had previously done and what I previously thought about photography. One of these aspects was my feelings for Gene Smith.

    After reading a couple of biographies, I started having trouble resolving the feelings I have about Smith and his photos. On the one hand, he was dedicated to his projects. On the other, he was neglectful of his family responsibility. On the one hand, he sought perfection. On the other hand, he was controlling and self-centered. As a person, I have a lot of difficulty with anyone who shirks responsibility, especially toward his loved ones.

    As to his photography, I still consider the "...Paradise Garden" photograph as one of my all-time favorites--probably my favorite photograph ever. The photo of Tomoku in her bath from the Minimata essay is heart-rendering. His 1965 photograph of Thelonious Monk (one of my musical heros) is the one I remember most when I listen to Monk's music. The women at the wake and the closeup of the troops (or police officers--not sure which right now) from the Spanish Village essay are memorable. Others also come to mind... I could go on but won't. On the other hand, there was the Pittsburgh project. I have the book that was released a few years ago and I consider the whole thing second-rate and a waste of effort on Smith's part.

    I'm also having trouble with Smith's purpose in his essays. He always pushed a point of view with open advocacy. I guess I can resolve this, at least partially, because Smith never claimed to be objective. I can even accept the manipulations and the combination printing he did to some degree.

    What I find most distressing is when I think of W. Eugene Smith turned loose today with a DSLR and Photoshop.

    I know I've babbled too long. If you've managed to read this far, do you have any comments?
     
  2. Bighead

    Bighead Member

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    I think if you look at anyone on top of their game, a lot of times, they are neglectful. They do alienate their families and friends... I get down because I don't get tons of "work" done but I have a job and a house and a son and I can't just drop everything. Some people need to neglect everything, even their health and mental well being for their art... Maybe we can produce work of that magnitude without that.. Its up to us...

    The other issue? I rarely push a point of view on any of my work. I like things open for intreetation but at the same time, I am an over objective person who rarely ever takes a particular stand on anything. I sometimes don't like that in myself or my work... So, that is really up to you.
     
  3. rbarker

    rbarker Member

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    I'm not sure there is any universal answer to these questions, Lee. Perhaps in some future utopian society, the obsessive/compulsive artist would be identified early in life and compelled to avoid having a family, thus avoiding the feelings of rejection and neglect that they would otherwise bestow upon their family. Perhaps not.

    As to the question of imposing a point of view, if one photographs social circumstances or "news", I think it is impossible to avoid projecting a personal point of view - even if only subtly through the selection of what to photograph, and how. Doing so openly and blatantly might be the more honest approach. Perhaps not. Not all of a person's work will rise to the same level of inspiration, however, so the fact that Evans' Pittsburgh Project didn't live up to the standards of other efforts only shows that he was, after all, just human. That need not affect one's appreciation of his work overall.

    The only objective photographs are those taken by surveillance cameras at preset intervals. :wink:
     
  4. kwmullet

    kwmullet Member

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    The story with Smith repeats with many other "highly successful" folks. For years, I really enjoyed Bing Crosby as both an actor and musician, but when I found out how abusive he was as a father, it just sucked a lot of the enjoyment out of it for me.

    I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a friend of mine a while back. We're both at a point in our lives where we're looking for life to have meaning beyond the secular liturgy of our class. We got into the topic of compasses, and I maintained that the only valid compass was one's self, since only you can give the appropriate context. I remembered how disappointed I was when I heard some quotes from the Dali Lama that would be virtually indistinguishable from any other ethnic cleansing rant, having to do with the desire to expel ethnic chinese from former Tibet.

    I've yet to be convinced that "doing it all" isn't a myth. Minimizing and compressing the time you spend with your family, then calling it "quality time" is an excuse. Much of quality is indeed quantity. How many times have you seen some biopic of a movie star or other accomplished person and heard the line "and through it all, they found time to spend with their children". Ask the kids if they got enough time. I don't blame the parents, I blame the Industrial Revolution, but that's a post on a different tangent.

    Here's the thing. Only in theory do perfect circles, squares and triangles exist. Everything in the real world has rough edges, distractions and inconsistencies. I'd say learn from that which you like and don't like about Smith, but don't fall into the trap of thinking anyone should be emulated in totality. Only from the other end of the room does the print have no grain.

    -KwM-
     
  5. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    I blame Gene's mom :smile:
     
  6. Bruce Osgood

    Bruce Osgood Membership Council Council

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    Lee,
    It looks to me like you are experiencing what a young boy feels when he first learns there is no Santa but the presents under the tree are real.

    "What I find most distressing is when I think of W. Eugene Smith turned loose today with a DSLR and Photoshop. "

    Well, this is only speculation. You might consider what Rembrandt would do, or any of the other "Greats". I never agreed with Mc Cluan (Sp?) that the medium was the message.

    A lot of the greatest works of art, art that frees our souls, it turns out was produced by a drunkard or debaucher. It does not mean one must be a drunkard or debaucher to make great art.

    Enjoy Smiths' presents under the tree. He was only a man.
     
  7. noblebeast

    noblebeast Member

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    On the surface, it sounds as if you are having difficulty with discovering that a hero actually has feet of clay. That exact thing has happened to me many times in my life.

    I have only recently been made aware of W. Eugene Smith, and have been devouring every book I find about/by him. I admire his apparent uncompromising devotion to how his work was produced and displayed, and find in him a kindred soul for his unrealistically high and inflexible standards (which were so often self destructive) as well as his sense of a higher purpose to his work. But through my reading I've also become aware of his many - quite human - contradictions, and have been a bit taken aback by his willingness to manipulate not only his images but his loved ones.

    Unfortunately most of us can never quite find a balance between excelling at a profession and excelling in our personal life. Different areas of human endeavor are rife with examples of those that achieved greatness in their art or their sport or whatever, but left their friends and family behind in the process. Gandhi is a good example - he arguably led India away from the British Empire and into self rule, but his family suffered for it; he was a father to the new independent nation, but probably didn't kick the soccer ball around with his sons too often.

    In the end I've learned to just take the good in people - that which informs, enlightens and inspires me, helps me to be a better human - and leave behind the rest. Smith inspired you to push your photography onto a certain level with the photos and essays you have cited, and that's plenty.

    And I too shudder at what he might have done with a DSLR and Photoshop. But for me I am thankful to him for the legacy he left photography in general and photojournalism in particular, and I would have liked to have met him. But after listening to the recollections of others that knew and loved him, I doubt we would have hung out much. Not that one of us is a better or worse human than the other, just different.

    Joe
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 17, 2005
  8. Joe Lipka

    Joe Lipka Member

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    Lee - every photograph you mentioned, I could see in my mind's eye. What a great thing that is - a few key words and you can see a photograph in your mind. THAT is truly a great gift that Gene Smith gave us. To operate at a level higher better than great, to swing for the fences and "fail" (the Pittsburgh Project) indicates the "all or nothing" behavior that drives the truly great. That greatness comes with a great price - and it applies to all that chose to pursue greatness at all cost.
     
  9. Nicole

    Nicole Member

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    I have had too much reality as a child and so as an adult I find myself looking for a fairytale

    I understand what you are saying.
     
  10. johnnywalker

    johnnywalker Subscriber

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    Former Tibet? The Chinese invaded Tibet, and the Delai Lama is telling them to go back home. That is hardly an "ethnic cleansing rant".
     
  11. Bighead

    Bighead Member

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    OH! Now you tell me...
     
  12. jovo

    jovo Membership Council Council

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    For me, the flawed genius is Wagner. A dishonest, self-centered, racist bastard of a man who wrote music of sublime expression. I think the thing that is most troubling (and I've just been thinking about it a lot recently as I've had a lot of his music to play) is the degree to which his work emanted from the same brain that, for example, damned the music and the person of Felix Mendelsohn because he was a Jew, and no Jew, he wrote, for that fact alone was capable of producing work of substance and value. Such a screed only succeeded in giving historical precedent to Nazi racist theories and ultimately, genocidal practice. Had Hitler himself created some beautiful art, would we be willing to disengage it from the rest of his bestial, criminal, monstrous career?

    So, it's a matter of degree I guess. Some things just can't be gotten past and others can. But there's no doubt that for people of conscience, it can be extremely difficult.
     
  13. kwmullet

    kwmullet Member

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    well... the ground is still there, but unless I'm mistaken (been known to happen), Tibet was a very closed society and one of the few effective Theocracies on earth. Now, decades later, the population of that area has been diluted, and it's no longer possible, short of ethnic cleansing, to remove all chinese persons and influence from the region. Then, very few ethnic Tibetans that are now around grew up before the invasion.

    Seems to me you've got a situation not unlike the anglo invasion of native north americans (aka "indians") in the US. If all non-indians were to leave the borders of the US right now, it's not as if all the historical indian nations would instantly flourish and return to their former stature.

    It's not an attractive idea, but seems to me that the Tibetans are now a people without a country with no realistic way to reverse that fact.

    -KwM-
     
  14. Lee Shively

    Lee Shively Member

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    Maybe a good portion of my disappointment in Gene Smith is actually disappointment in my own naivety as a younger photographer. It isn't just a disappointment in Smith-The-Man, in some ways it is disappointment in Smith-The-Photographer-I-Thought-Him-To-Be.

    I now look over some of his famous photo essays and realize the subjects often appear posed and the circumstances highly controlled. Smith obviously wanted to get across his point of view and used the tools available to him to do so. While not crossing the line into dishonesty, it's a little worrisome. Especially since I can remember doing some of the same things in my pictures to emphasize a point.

    Anyway, thanks for the perspectives.
     
  15. juan

    juan Subscriber

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    This thread has obviously become a victim of Godwin's Law.
    juan
     
  16. mark

    mark Member

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    Thats the problem with humans. We idolize and forget that those we are idolizing are human too. Hell, Hemmingway was/is my literary hero and he was a total assho*e to everyone. Okay that is a generalization but not far off.
     
  17. c6h6o3

    c6h6o3 Member

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    Jay:

    I think I could if I found her art beautiful. (I don't). Could you? From the wording of your post I can't tell whether you could or not.

    To me this concept is more apropos of Wagner than Leni Riefenstahl.

    It was a long time after WWII that anyone in this country, at any rate, began to rediscover Wagner. The associations between the Nazis and Wagner's music stigmatized German opera for at least 25 years after the war ended. I always thought this was ridiculous. Wagner died 50 years before the Nazis came to power.

    Yes, Hitler loved Wagner's music and listened to it all the time. He was also a teetotaling, non-smoking vegetarian. Does that mean that if I don't eat meat I'm to be associated in the public mind with crimes against humanity? Should I start smoking so that I won't be accused of adopting Hitler's mannerisms? Sure those questions are ridiculous, but the logical fallacy inherent in both of them is the same as the one which kept Wagner's music out of opera houses for decades after the war.

    Richard Wagner was one of the 19th century's towering geniuses - a megalomaniacal, racist, jingoistic, anti-Semitic towering genius. But his contribution to the Western operatic repertory is equally gigantic. Thank God he left us a legacy which so powerfully overshadows his life.

    I've always found it appropriate that the final leitmotiv (and to me the most beautiful in the entire Ring saga) of Die Gotterdamerung is the motiv of 'Redemption'.

    Jim
     
  18. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    lee -

    i don't mean to sound flippant or anything, but you should be glad you never met the guy and showed him your work ...

    15+ years ago i showed a famous-photographer some of my work --- first he said "throw away my camera you are wasting your time", then after he insisted on buying me lunch ( i bought the cheapest thing on the menu and had a glass of tap-water ) and he made a scene at the sandwich shop screaming at me "my pacemaker is in my chest right here, TOUCH IT", he gave me a poster (unsigned) and wagged his finger at me saying " i take photographs like this, DON'T YOU EVER".

    you should feel kind of lucky that you only met him through his photography ...
     
  19. photomc

    photomc Member

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    As has been mentioned..the photographers we have all admired are just people..with all the same warts and bad judgement we all have. But let's not forget those that may not be so great (OK to me they are, but to the Art World/Media they are 2nd tier) that did do great work and were just ordinary folks...L. Gilpin comes to mind, yet I am sure she had here own quirks of personality..so best we admire their work, and hope to be people - say like our Parents, GrandParents, etc..and as we all know, they had their problems too!
     
  20. donna-marie

    donna-marie Member

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    All the good ones were crazy . . . I take comfort in that. :wink:
     
  21. johnnywalker

    johnnywalker Subscriber

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    There's a huge difference. Tibet was invaded and is now occupied. There are no Chinese "settlers" in Tibet. By far most of the Chinese there are either military or government functionaries of one kind or another. They are purposely destroying the Tibetan culture. Find an unbiased history and read it.
     
  22. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    This sort of specualtion shows up daily on the radio in Hawai'i -- plans to restore the monarchy, demote all non-blood-hawaiians to second class citizens (not booted out, but not permitted to own property either), etc. People actually take this seriously for some reason, ignoring all the realities of their own history (that the ali'i priveleged class married quickly into the european settlers to solidify their power base, for example). One can only imagine if the US pulled out of Hawai'i, the People's Republic of Maui would be launching scuds at Imperial Oahu and Big Island rebels inside of six months :smile:
     
  23. jon koss

    jon koss Subscriber

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    Well, after years of resistance I have been dragged to the conclusion that the medium may be all that matters. And the ramifications are profound for APUGers. Here's the reasoning. By the Sixties everybody was shooting everything in terms of equipment. 35mm was long established, there had been a million Speed Graphics sold, and 6x6 had been owned by the Tessar since forever. But what images spring to mind when we think of the Sixties? Avedon. David Bailey. Diane Arbus. The common thread? The Planar-type lens married to a square format. Excepting Arbus, one could even make the case that it was the Hassy with the Planar. In other words, the Sixties, as we close our eyes and envision them, were created by the Planar-type lens. Avedon took pictures like he did because he could! Of course, the Planar/Hassy/Rollei concept was the cutting edge of technology for its day. The best photos of the day were created with the best technology of the day.

    The ramifications? At APUG we are holding on to yesterday's best, unlike Avedon, Bailey and Arbus. I wager that the collectible superstars of the 2030's are shooting today on Leaf backs, or whatever is really the most technically advanced system of this day. Thirty years from now the stuff will look like nothing else. So, we will collect it.

    Conclusion: the medium is the message!

    (Just a 1:27 AM Sunday thought.)

    jk