A Kansas boy with a huge heart, a cantankerous soul and a chip on his shoulder, 19-year-old W. Eugene Smith dropped out of college and headed for New York in 1937.
Within a decade he had turned himself into one of the 20th century’s most influential photojournalists, his work published in Collier’s, Parade, Look, Life and other magazines that delivered the world to readers in that pre-Twitter era.
Forty of his pictures, on view at Weinstein Gallery in south Minneapolis through April 27, show a man obsessed — with light, with darkness, and with visual storytelling. That his was a black-and-white world is evident in both his stark high-contrast images and in the unyielding moral indignation that inspired them. Over the course of a 40-year career he chronicled war and its aftermath in Japan; poverty in Spain, leprosy in Africa; steel mills, rural medicine and even celebrities in America.
The show features classic images from a variety of sources, including Smith’s estate, one of his sons, the archives of Life magazine, and collectors and galleries around the country. It is the first extensive Twin Cities exhibit of the artist’s work since 1987, when the Minneapolis Institute of Arts hosted a major retrospective.
“He was the last great message photographer,” said gallery owner Martin Weinstein, for whom Smith exemplifies an era when photographers believed they could change the world by documenting it. “His message was about humanity, what people do to each other, the nobility and the cruelty of it.”
Organized in loose chronology, the show starts with World War II, which Smith chronicled as a Navy correspondent in Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Saipan. His memorable pictures include bombers aloft, Gen. Douglas MacArthur touring the Philippines, and a close-up of a bearded, sweat-stained GI swigging from a canteen as a buddy scans the horizon.
Smith’s own war ended in May 1945 when, during a night raid on a Japanese fortification, he was hit by shrapnel and his left index finger was nearly severed. Evacuated to Guam, he was patched up and shipped back to New York, where he eventually resumed work for Life. Samples of his work for the magazine include sympathetic pictures of an exhausted Colorado doctor taking a break in a hospital kitchen, stitching the finger of a howling kid and making a house call.
Though published in 1951, Smith’s “Spanish Village” series seems centuries older, its black-clad peasants, veiled mourners and soldiers in tricorn hats figures of legend rather than still-living memory. Likewise, his black-faced Welsh miners and Pittsburgh steelworkers appear to recall a long-ago industrial age, and his mid-20th-century celebrities are now on the cusp of oblivion: singer Marian Anderson and baseball stars Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio.
His two most famous pictures thrum the emotional chords for which Smith is best remembered. First is his 1946 image of two of his children toddling from a dark glade into a bowl of light. Called “Walk to Paradise Garden,” it was a symbol of hope that in 1955 became a worldwide sensation in Edward Steichen’s famous “Family of Man” exhibition, which was seen by more than 9 million people in 38 countries. Nearly 70 years later, our visual vocabulary has changed, and the kids silhouetted against lacy garden foliage read like a valentine’s cliché. In the aftermath of war, Smith’s sweet sentiment was doubtless appealing, but it tastes like Victorian treacle on the modern tongue.
His Minamata masterpiece has held up better. Published in 1972 as part of a photo essay on industrial pollution, “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath” records a Japanese woman tenderly bathing her 15-year-old daughter, whose tragic birth deformities were caused by mercury dumped into Minamata Bay. The mother’s serene, beatific expression and the way she cradles the child have rightly earned the picture acclaim as the 20th century’s Pieta.
Shortly after taking it, Smith was brutally beaten while covering a protest at another Japanese factory. His body already broken by war wounds, alcoholism, diabetes and hard living, Smith returned to the States and struggled on for six years — separating from his second wife, taking a new lover, writing and exhibiting, quarreling with friends and supporters, living in impoverished squalor.
He was just 59 when he died Oct. 15, 1978, after suffering a massive stroke in a Tucson, Ariz., supermarket where he had stopped to buy cat food.
It was a tragicomic end to a life writ large across the most brutal decades of a harsh century. He left behind more than 100,000 negatives and hundreds of memorable images that stand as legacy of a man who once wrote, with typical bombast, “I am the storm and I war with eternity.”