This winter, Foam
presents a retrospective containing work by W. Eugene Smith (US, 1918-1978). Smith has been hailed as the founder of the photographic essay. His extensive pictorial narratives, accompanied by captions and comments, appeared in magazines such as the world-famous American periodical Life in the 1950s, the heyday of photographic journalism. Smiths black-and-white reportages exhibit a powerful sense of involvement, dealing with subject matter that reflects his social commitment.
Foam features six of his finest series, including The Country Doctor (1948), acclaimed as photojournalisms first official photo essay. Other famous series such as Nurse Midwife, A Man of Mercy, Spanish Village, Pittsburgh and Minamata are also shown in the exhibition. Alongside the photos, magazines are on display as well as the short documentary entitled Lamp Unto My Feet.
Smith became interested in photography at an early age, inspired by his mother who was an enthusiastic amateur photographer. At fifteen, he published his first picture in a local newspaper. This marks the start of his professional career as a photographer for publications such as Newsweek, culminating in his appointment at Life. It was in this magazine that he published about fifty series, including The Country Doctor, Nurse Midwife, A Man of Mercy and Spanish Village.
His tremendous sense of involvement, his essential humanism and his desire to achieve social change are all characteristic of W. Eugene Smiths photography. Yet his tenure at Life was marked by constant conflict with the editors. Smith researched his stories thoroughly and submitted his photos with extensive captions, notes and lay-out suggestions. These were generally ignored, which eventually led to Smiths resignation.
In 1955, Smith joined Magnum in the hope that this would give him the freedom to publish his photos the way he wanted. His first project for Magnum, Pittsburgh, was also his last: the series failed to meet his exacting demands. Smith invested all his emotional and financial resources in Pittsburgh. Other subsequent reportages, such as Minamata, suffered a similar fate.
Having been wounded while taking pictures on the front line during the Second World War, overcome by frustration and bedevilled by his own perfectionism, Smith succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse. His health quickly deteriorated. He ended his career as professor at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, only to die shortly after his appointment.
More Real than Reality by W. Eugene Smith can be seen from 17 December 2010 to 16 March 2011 at Foam_Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam.