W. Eugene Smith – Master of the Photo Essay

Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Much of the development of the editorial photo essay can be attributed to American photographer W. Eugene Smith. His essay, “Country Doctor” published by Life magazine in 1948, is recognized as the first extended editorial photo story.

Smith was obsessive in the pursuit of his vision and his career was marred with conflict. He was fired from Newsweek and later quit Life Magazine. He joined Magnum in 1955 and went to Pittsburgh for a commissioned project that was due to last a month. It took him three years.

His most notable photo essays include:

  • World War II photographs,
  • the dedication of an American country doctor and a nurse midwife,
  • the clinic of Dr Schweitzer in French Equatorial Africa,
  • the city of Pittsburgh,
  • and the pollution which damaged the health of the residents of Minamata in Japan.

Below is a video from Ted Forbes at the Art of Photography digging into the life and work of W. Eugene Smith.

“A photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought” – W. Eugene Smith

Being Inspired by W. Eugene Smith

I’ve always been able to learn a great deal by studying the work of successful photographers. Finding people who use their cameras to record the world in a similar way to how you see it will inspire you. Now it’s easy. I haven’t been to the library and browsed the shelves of a photography section for many years. (Mainly because I live in Thailand.) This is how I would find inspiration as a young photographer. Head to the library and check out as many photography books as I was allowed to. And then be on to the next library once those shelves were exhausted.

Now we have the internet. Youtube and websites with so much information and images to enjoy. The key is niching down to what you are truly interested in and building your skills by immersing yourself. And then going out and practicing what you’ve learned.

Further Reading

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post you will also enjoy “How To Tell Terrific Stories With Your Photos” and “How To Know What To Take Photos Of”

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2 thoughts on “W. Eugene Smith – Master of the Photo Essay”

  1. I love your work, and especially what you write about your work, helping those who follow you develop their own storytelling skills through photography. I drift away from following you because life sometimes gets in the way, but then an email appears and I’m back again. Learning and enjoying your words and photographs.

    1. Thanks Suzanne. I very much appreciate you sharing your thoughts and am thrilled you enjoy my photography and articles. Stay tuned for my next book 🙂

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