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  1. #1

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    I'm having trouble resolving these feelings

    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. #2

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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. #3
    rbarker's Avatar
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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.
    [COLOR=SlateGray]"You can't depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus." -Mark Twain[/COLOR]

    Ralph Barker
    Rio Rancho, NM

  4. #4
    kwmullet's Avatar
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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. #5
    bjorke's Avatar
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    I blame Gene's mom

    "What Would Zeus Do?"
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  6. #6
    Bruce Osgood's Avatar
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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. #7
    noblebeast's Avatar
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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 noblebeast; 03-17-2005 at 01:14 PM. Click to view previous post history.
    Latent Images Plastic Toy Cameras

    "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive" - Howard Thurman

  8. #8
    Joe Lipka's Avatar
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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.
    A New Project! Transformations 02/02/2014

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    250+ posts and still blogging! "Postcards from the Creative Journey"

    http://blog.joelipkaphoto.com/

  9. #9
    Nicole's Avatar
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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. #10
    johnnywalker's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kwmullet
    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.
    -KwM-
    Former Tibet? The Chinese invaded Tibet, and the Delai Lama is telling them to go back home. That is hardly an "ethnic cleansing rant".
    If I had been present at the creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better arrangement of the Universe.
    Alfonso the Wise, 1221-1284

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