W. Eugene Smith Documentary...sort of

Discussion in 'Photographers' started by Flotsam, Sep 1, 2006.

  1. Flotsam

    Flotsam Member

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    I just finished watching the PBS Film/Documentary, "W. Eugene Smith: Photography Made Difficult".
    I really enjoyed it. Interesting on so many levels, especially to those who recognise the equipment and processes. An hour and a half long and they really only managed to scrape the surface of this complex and gifted man. I wish that they had gone into more depth in interviewing his assistants who worked and travelled with him. I'm sure that they could have given some fascinating insights.
    Above all, it is a film about photography, told through a talented, obsessively dedicated, photographer. It can't help but make you ponder your own relationship with photography.

    My advice: Get it on DVD (I got it from Netflix) and keep the remote in your hand with your thumb on the pause button. It is heavily illustrated with Smith's photographs and I was constantly pausing to spend more time viewing them than the editors allowed.

    It came out in 1989 so I'm sure that I'm late to the game on this. I'd like to hear opinions from others who have seen it.
     
  2. jp80874

    jp80874 Subscriber

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    Flotsam,

    Great review. Thank you. Convinced me. I just bought it on eBay, though there it is shown as 2002. For anyone who wants to do the same, beware of the lowest price. Their shipping is 3x the other sellers. They also have a lower feedback rating. Funny how that works.

    John Powers
     
  3. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    I've been renting documentaries of photographers from Netflix, too! I enjoyed this one on Gene Smith. And you are right... they never linger on the photographs as long as I would like to!

    There was one on Paul Strand that wasn't very satisfying, and one on Avedon that was quite good. I have one in the queue on Stieglitz to look forward to!

    Seen any others?
     
  4. photobum

    photobum Member

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    I've had mine in VHS long before 2002. A great movie. If you have not done so the best book ever written about any photographer is "Lines and Shadows" the Smith biography by Jim Huges.
     
  5. ann

    ann Subscriber

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    Hmm,

    i got the video years ago, and couldn't stand to watch it; the reenactment of his life was the issue with me. Acting was bad, perhaps i need to drag it out and revisit to see if i have changed. It was a real disappointment as i love his work.

    Suzanne, if the stieglitz one is called " An Eloquent Eye", it is beautiful. the photos left me with a heart ache.

    I collect these types of video's and DVD to show my classes. What a delight to be able to go back and rewind lol
     
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  6. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Ann-- I'd agree the reenactment part wasn't my favorite, and normally I like Peter Riegert (I think that's who it was). But I think you get a sense of Smith's life and struggles from the interviews of those who knew him.

    And I think I'll move the Steiglitz one to the top of the queue!!
     
  7. Flotsam

    Flotsam Member

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    I agree that it was an odd choice to make it part docudrama, part documentary. I wish that I knew where they came up with some of the words that the actor said. Were they Smith's, or more dramatization? But I found it easy enough to accept those scenes for what they were and enjoy the interviews, the timeline of his life, and of course, the many photographs. You should view it again and try to overlook the dramatization parts and enjoy the rest. I think that there is still enough there to make it worthwhile.
     
  8. Flotsam

    Flotsam Member

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    :D Not if I get there first :D
     
  9. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    The biography of Smith by Hughes is entitled "Shadows and Substance".

    "The Eloquent Eye" about Stieglitz is good, and is not just about photography,
    but also the artists he and Steichen "talent-spotted".

    I believe all of the words spoken by Peter Riegert in "photography made difficult" are quotes from letters or other written material. Certainly I came across much of that dialog in my reading about Smith.

    Finally, if you want to hear actual audio (and see a little bit of video) about Smith, there is a short (about 30min) documentary about Smith's Pittsburgh project by Kenneth Love called "Brilliant Fever". Don't know if it's still available, my mother got me a copy thru one of the Carnegie museums years ago.

    In one of the threads here, I think it was on the one about the Brett Weston DVD, I did a braindump on all the photographer documentaries I know about....
     
  10. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    Here's what I wrote on the Brett Weston DVD thread:

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Here's a partial list of the photographer documentaries I'm aware of:

    "Paul Strand: Under the Darkcloth" DVD and video
    "W. Eugene Smith: Photography Made Difficult" DVD and video
    "Walker Evans' America" apparently video only
    "David Plowden: Light and Shadow" DVD and video
    "American Masters: Ansel Adams" DVD
    "Remembering Edward Weston" video, don't know if it's available on DVD
    (Brief footage of Cole, Brett and Charis Wilson)

    "Brilliant Fever" video made in Pittsburgh by Kenneth Love about W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh project.

    "The Adventure of Photography" - 2 DVD set, I believe originally done on French TV. Lots of historical nuggets, and some errors.

    "90 degrees South" - DVD made of Herbert Ponting's presentation of his still and moving (!) pictures from the 1911 Scott expedition to Antartica.

    "Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life" - apparently video only

    ....and I'm sure there are plenty of others. Of these, my favorites are "A Visual Life" and "Photography Made Difficult"....

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    In addition, let me say that besides "Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life" (now availalbe on DVD) there are two additional DVDs available from the filmmaker Meg Partridge: "Outta of my Light", a wonderful documentary about her father, Rondal Partridge, son of Imogen Cunningham, and "Portrait of Imogen", a short documentary showing pictures of IC with accompanying audio form IC herself. When I ordered these, I wound up talking to the filmmaker herself; I'm afraid I gushed compliments like a love-stricken school girl....

    The Avedon DVD "Darkness and Light" is quite good too. Particularly when John Lahr starts reviewing the contact prints of a portrait session of his father Bert Lahr (played the cowardly lion in "The Wizard of Oz"), and starts to weep...and then explains why.
     
  11. Flotsam

    Flotsam Member

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    Thanks for clearing up the source for the actors words, Bill. It makes the film even more enjoyable.
    [edit] Also, I am printing out your list of other photodocs. Thanks for posting it.

    Has anyone watched the "Masters of Photography: Diane Arbus" documentary? How is it?
     
  12. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    There is also an "American Masters" DVD on Leibowitz (hey, they didn't ask ME). I have it, was a gift.

    There is a Charlie Rose on HCB that's available on the web

    Winogrand was on "The Creative Eye" and is on DVD at the local library but an SJSU professor has it on PERMANENT reserve and so is effectively out of reach (what's the point of that?)

    There is a recent HCB doc due on DVD

    The recent Eggleston doc is already on DVD

    Also: "War Photographer" with Natchwey, and there's a recent HBO doc on "Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang-Bang Club" is also starting to appear on DVD
     
  13. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    Thanks, Bjorke, for reminding me....

    Just watched the Charlie Rose interview with HCB. It wasn't half as annoying as I'd thought it would be, when Rose asks a somewhat inane question, he just gets a Gallic shrug. It's only awkward when there are three of those shrugs within a minute. HCB also pointed out that one of his most famous photographs of Ghandi's funeral wasn't taken by him - he handed his camera to someone with a better view.

    The recent HCB doc is, I believe, "The Impassioned Eye" and it's already available on DVD. (Perhaps I'm wrong here, and you're speaking of something else.)

    Watched the Eggleston documentary, the documentary itself doesn't do anything for me. (I'd like to take some of Walker Evan's late color polaroids, and some of Eggleston's shots, and see if people could guess the correct photographer as a test.)

    "The War Photographer" is one of my favorite DVDs, but the subject material is very depressing. On the other hand, putting a small video camera on top of his EOS 3, and watching both the video and the resulting still photographs, was very innovative and I'd love to have it done for other photographers, particular street photographers.

    Enough. If I had any talent I'd be out photographing, and not watching this stuff...
     
  14. ann

    ann Subscriber

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    there are quite a few more, i will try to get together a list of what i have. another great source and this tells my age, a series of slides with voice over of the photgraphers.
     
  15. ann

    ann Subscriber

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    here are some more to add to the list that bill gave

    Iluminations Ruth Bernhard

    Kertesz master of photography series

    Arbus master of photography series

    Mary Ellen Mark the searching eye
    Sebastiao Salgado Looking Back at You
    Portrait of Imogen

    Henri Cartier-Bresson ? (that is the name)
    America and Lewis Hine

    MayRay Prophet of the Avant garde
    Tapestry of Creation the Photography of Christopher Burkett

    Ernst Haas To Dream with Open Eyes
    William Albert Allard Seeing for Himself
    Sam Abell Sight and Insight
    Brian Lanker Sharing the Dream

    A PBS series called American Photography a century of images


    Then Lenswork has a very nice series of other photographers and they add more every year.
     
  16. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    Thank you Ann.

    I wonder if it would be worthwhile to create a new forum (or maybe an article?)
    to maintain this list of photodocs....maybe we should approach Sean about this.
    I've seen this effort (listing of documentaries) happen at least twice now....

    -Bill
     
  17. Flotsam

    Flotsam Member

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    Bill, I was just wishing that I had named this thread "Photographic Documentaries available on DVD" so that these great lists would be more easily found in searches. I agree that it would be nice to have them permanently available and updated.
     
  18. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    I've already made a post on the "Feedback and Discussion" forum asking that maybe a new forum should be made about this.....
     
  19. ann

    ann Subscriber

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    not all of those i listed are on dvd, or at least i don't have copies in that form, i have a lot of video as i have had them for some time
    and some are not really a full blown documentary, but photographers discussing their work and style.
     
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  20. noblebeast

    noblebeast Member

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    I have it. It's sort of interesting...you get an actress friend of hers verbally recreating her presentation - or portions of it - to one of the classes she taught, while a slideshow of her photographs is presented. This is interspersed here and there by interviews with folks from the Art world that knew and worked with her, as well as her daughter Doon (All circa 1972). Once I got over feeling kinda cheated out of hearing her own voice (the tapes they had were of very poor quality) I really appreciated hearing her thoughts about photography in general, and her own work in particular, as presented to a small group of photography students. When all is said and done I feel I learned a bunch from this rather short (less than 30 min.) film. If you're a fan or appreciator of Arbus I would have to say this is a must own, because there is damn little else available. If you're only casually interested in what she has to say then hunt around for a loaner copy.

    Joe
     
  21. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    More on "photography made difficult"

    As far as I know, the only actor in "Photography Made Difficult" is Peter Riegert, playing Smith. Everybody else - John Berger, John Morris, Ted Castle, Ed Thompson, Ben Maddow, A.D. Coleman, the various wives, Jasmine et al - are the real folks being interviewed....in fact I see some of the same people in the film footage in "Brilliant Fever". In fact, sometimes there is interaction between Riegert, playing Smith, and actual people from Smith's life, like the mother of Tomoko Uemura.

    But it is true that Peter Riegert neither looks like nor sounds like Smith.

    I have a great interest in history, and am usually very skeptical about so called documentaries involving re-creation. But this one I love, because they used Smith's actual words, and it tells the story of his life, and there are all those wonderful pictures....plus it gave Ed Thompson's side of the story (quitting Life) as well as Smith's :smile:.....


     
  22. Flotsam

    Flotsam Member

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    Sorry Bill, that was supposed to be Actor's not Actors. I was only referring to Peter Riegert. My fault :sad:

    One thing that I found interesting and never considered before was that for a photo essayist, Life was really the only game in town back then. If you weren't working for them, you better find another line of work. Can you think of any other 1950s mags that did photo essay features? I'm thinking maybe National Geographic and, didn't Look do photographic features?
    This is a historical question, I was busy gestating and being born at the time and didn't have a lot of spare time for reading magazines.
     
  23. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    No problem. I thought you were aware of this, I just want to "sell" this documentary to others.

    I was born in 1949, so I barely remember much of the 50's. There was Life, Look and National Geographic. I know Walker Evans did photo essays for Fortune, but never saw any of them. Popular Photography let Smith put his Pittsburgh essay in their 1959 annual, but neither Smith nor the magazine was happy with it.

    There are Life magazine pictures I remember looking at as a kid that I've never forgotten (or seen since). One showed a gentleman seated at a table, staring intently at a chessboard with pieces on it. The table was on a stage, there is nobody in the chair opposite him. In the background a much younger man is pacing. Probably one of the Tal-Botvinnik world championship matches from 1960-61. When I saw this picture I knew nothing about chess, but got caught up in the Fischer mania 12 years later...


     
  24. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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  25. Michael W

    Michael W Member

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    I watched the W Eugene Smith doc on video about 5 years back & thought it was excellent.
    Like others, i was apprehensive about the use of an actor to play Smith, but I thought it worked well. As I recall he isn't actually walking about & speaking. There is footage of him with cameras, in the darkroom etc while his voiceover narrates using direct quotes from Smith.
    Also this footage is used sparingly.
    God how I hate the recent trend for all documentaries to have extensive 'recreated' scenes. I used to love watching shows on ancient Rome etc, but these days they are full of slow-mo sequences of a bunch of extras in hired costumes running around a campfire.

    There is a good DVD called 'Dream Lives' about 2 Aussie photographers - Trent Parke & Narelle Autio. Runs for 30 mins & was made for Australian TV. They are a couple who are both excellent documentary & street photographers. The DVD has a lot of footage of them at work on various projects as well as shots of their work. Trent Parke is now a member of Magnum & I think has a book coming out soon called 'Minutes to Midnight' which should be excellent, based on his exhibition of the same name.

    A few years back I borrowed a video doc from the library about Bill Brandt. Made in the 70s I think. It wasn't great, but worthwhile to see him interviewed. He was somewhat evasive in his answers. The interviewer mentions how often the subjects in his portraits are off centre, or placed at the edge of frame. Brandt expresses surprise at this, so the interviewer shows him a range of examples. Brandt sits there saying 'Isn't that extraordinay, never noticed that before' etc. Obviously didn't like to give too much away.