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Retrospective of photographer W. Eugene Smith's work on view at Martin-Gropius-Bau
A visitor takes a picture of framed black and white photographs at the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition venue in Berlin, Germany. The images are part of the exhibition about US photographer W. Eugene Smith and are shown under the title 'A Retrospective' until 27 November 2011. EPA/WOLFGANGKUMM.

BERLIN.- W. Eugene Smith, who was born in 1918 in Wichita, Kansas, and died in 1978 in Tucson, Arizona, first made a name for himself as a politically and socially committed photojournalist in the USA in the 1940s. Many of his photographic reports appeared in Life, the leading picture magazine that had been launched in New York in 1936. Smith saw in photography more than just an illustration to a text and had often asked editors for a greater say in the composition of a photo-essay. His painstakingly researched and emotionally moving features set new standards of photojournalism in the 1940s and 1950s.

Smith had begun to take photographs as a fifteen-year-old, having been inspired by his mother, a keen amateur photographer. In 1936, following the suicide of his father as a result of the Great Crash, Smith initially enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. But he dreamed of becoming a photographer and moved to New York, where he attended the New York Institute of Photography. He embarked on his professional career in 1937 as a photo reporter for Newsweek.

A year later he began to work as a freelance for the Black Star Agency, and his pictures appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Collier’s, Time and Life. With Life he was to have a close association that went on for years.

When the USA found itself at war at the end of 1941 Smith initially took propaganda shots for the magazine Parade to support the American troops. Then, as a correspondent for Flying magazine, he took part in reconnaissance flights, taking photos from the air. In 1944 he was back on the staff of Life - this time as a war correspondent - documenting the battle of Saipan and the American landings on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In the course of the fighting the style of his photos changed. Instead of being gung ho they tended to focus on the terrible sufferings of the civilian population and were shot in a way that involved the viewer emotionally. On 22 May 1945 Smith himself was seriously injured, forcing him to submit to a series of operations that went on until 1947.

His new lease of life was symbolized by the first photograph he took after his wound. A Walk to Paradise Garden depicts his two youngest children walking towards a sun-bathed clearing. “While I followed my children into the undergrowth and the group of taller trees – how they were delighted at every little discovery! – and observed them, I suddenly realized that at this moment, in spite of everything, in spite of all the wars and all I had gone through that day, I wanted to sing a sonnet to life and to the courage to go on living it.” (1954)

After his recovery he went back to work for Life again. Documentary features showing the dedicated work of ordinary people were particularly popular with readers. In The Country Doctor (1948) he accompanied a young country doctor from the Denver area on his rounds for several weeks. His report Nurse Midwife (1951) on the black midwife Maud Callen was produced against a background of racial discrimination and the brazen activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the Deep South. In developing the prints Smith adjusted the lighting so as to enhance the emotional atmosphere - during a birth, for example - and so arouse sympathy for the selfless efforts of the midwife. His social commitment, however, did not always meet with approval, as in the case of the unpublished report (1950) on the re-election campaign of Clement Attlee, the candidate of the British Labour Party.

Life intended the report to strengthen indirectly the position of the Conservatives by presenting the results of Attlee’s nationalization policies in a critical light. Smith’s coverage, however, aroused sympathy for Attlee’s programme and the candidate himself. Smith had more success with his Spanish Village feature (1951). He wanted to convey an impression of living conditions under a fascist regime. After obtaining the necessary shooting permission, he spent two months studying the Spanish countryside before finally selecting a remote village in the Estremadura as his subject. Not a few of the photographs, with their chiaroscuro and clearly structured composition, are reminiscent of classical paintings and convey by means of this stylistic device a sense of the hardships but also the beauty of life there.

Smith’s feature on the work of Albert Schweitzer in Lambaréné was to be his last for Life whose refusal to give him a say in the selection and layout of pictures had become unacceptable, and he left the periodical after the appearance of his photo essay Albert Schweitzer – Man of Mercy in November 1955.

A career alternative offered itself in the shape of membership of Magnum, the photographers’ agency founded in 1947. Stefan Lorant commissioned Smith to do an extensive feature on the city of Pittsburgh and its iron foundries, which occupied him for the next few years and nearly exhausted his financial and personal resources. Instead of the 100 prints agreed with Lorant, there arose 13,000 shots out of which he wanted to compose an essay which would be entirely in line with his convictions. In 1958 88 photographs were published in Popular Photography’s Annual Guide, although the essay never appeared in its entirety.

In 1957 Smith, who was known for his excessive devotion to his work, had left his family and moved to 821 Sixth Avenue in New York. The house was visited and used for rehearsals by many well-known jazz musicians, and Smith, who was a passionate music lover, photographed and documented this creative milieu over the next few years, while also keeping an audio record on 1,740 tapes, which were only discovered among his posthumous effects in 1998. At the same time he photographed street scenes from his window while also working on the construction of a psychiatric clinic in Haiti.

In 1961 a commission from the Cosmos PR Agency to photograph the company Hitachi Ltd. took Smith to Japan for a year. This was followed in 1963 by a book which contrasted modern Japan with its deeply rooted traditions. A decade later he again turned to the forced modernization of Japan and its grave consequences with a shocking series about the Minamata epidemic which had been triggered by the environmental pollution caused by the chemical concern Chisso, which had discharged mercurial waste into the sea near the town of Minamata. The Committee for the Defence of the Victims hired Smith to document the human and ecological dimensions of the catastrophe, and the photographer, who threw himself heart and soul into the project, moved with his second wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, to Minamata. In the course of his researches he was beaten up by company security guards and severely injured. The pictures he took, which appeared in Life and his book Minamata: A Warning to the World largely contributed to publicizing the scandal.

By the early 1970s Smith’s photographic work was attracting the attention of museums. His photo A Walk to Paradise Garden had already been selected by Edward Steichen as a symbolic climax to the exhibition The Family of Man (1955), but it was not until 1971 that the first retrospective Let Truth Be the Prejudice was held in the Jewish Museum in New York. In 1977 Smith, by this time seriously ill, moved to Tucson, Arizona, to take up a teaching post at the university there in what was to be the last year of his life.

Last Week News

September 26, 2011

Andy Warhol's headline works presented by the National Gallery of Art, Washington

80 outstanding 19th century French drawings from the Louvre go on view at the Morgan Library

With over one hundred loans "Picasso 1905 in Paris" exhibition at Kunsthalle Bielefeld

American artist Dan Colen's first major exhibition in Rome opens at Gagosian Gallery

Dutch and Flemish paintings on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg

The Denver Art Museum is first venue for "Robert Adams: The Place We Live" exhibition

Rijksmuseum is largest loaning institution to exhibition at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

Exhibition of recent work by Japanese artist and architect Yutaka Sone at David Zwirner

Major exhibition on Sam Maloof and his circle of artist friends on view at the Huntington Library

Survey exhibition of paintings and drawings by Hans Burkhardt at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts

"Combinations Described" by Bruce Nauman on view at Donald Young Gallery

NRW-Forum Exhibition by Magnum photographers focuses on war and crisis photography

Connecticut College's steel house by Winslow Ames getting chance to shine again

Two new AGA exhibitions explore pioneers of both early French photography and the frontier landscape

Docks Art Fair achieves a highly praised 3rd edition

Ohio mosque designed to blend in, not stand out

Exhibition is inspired by the concepts behind Czech author Milan Kundera's novel Slowness

FLAG Art Foundation presents two exhibitions: Art², a group exhibition and Jane Hammond: Fallen

High presents major exhibition of wildlife sculptures by artist Grainger McKoy

September 25, 2011

Lehmbruck Museum's most extensive exhibition celebrates its 100th anniversary

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Presents "Andy Warhol: Shadows"

Houston's Menil Collection Announces Return of Byzantine Frescoes to Cyprus in 2012

MFA Houston announces major Frank Stella acquisition: "Palmito Ranch" (1961), a landmark in American painting

Made in the UK: Contemporary art British art at the Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design

Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews and Christians at Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

Third solo exhibition by Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes on view at Galerie Max Hetzler

Restoration work to begin on Joan Miró mural in Wichita State University's Ulrich Museum of Art

Larry Wright appointed Managing Director of Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington

Exhibition at Victoria & Albert Museum tackles tough task: define "Postmodernism"

First Ever Museum Exhibition Showcases Giorgio di Sant' Angelo's Innovation and Influence

De La Warr Pavilion explores Andy Warhol's beliefs, lifestyle and above all, his legacy

Neuberger Museum of Art presents first ten-year survey of paintings and drawings by Dana Schutz

Arnolfini celebrates 50th anniversary of presenting the very best in contemporary art in all its forms

Des Moines Art Center exhibition explores issues of loss and extinction in Dario Robleto's work

New study identifies pine bush as "Stop Over" for migrating birds

Taglialatella Galleries announcemens two new executive positions

National Museum of American History receives Peace Corps objects

Andrew Raftery: Open House on view at the Fleming Museum of Art

"Modify as Needed" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami

Newark Museum Patchwork exhibition now open

Studies suggest 2 waves of ancient Asia settlement

Massachusetts library undoes century-old Twain book ban

Israel donates money for preservation of Auschwitz

Nation's largest pinball museum to open in Baltimore

September 24, 2011

Copyrights and images from Marilyn Monroe's first photo shoot to be auctioned

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Turkish Republic reach agreement for transfer of top half of Weary Herakles

The Morgan Library & Museum holds major exhibition this fall celebrating the birth of Charles Dickens

Richard Serra: Two new sculptures, Junction and Cycle, on view at the Gagosian Gallery

Works by world's preeminent contemporary artists sold at Christie's New York to benefit Artists for Haiti

"Wizard of Oz" ruby slippers up for sale at California auction house Profiles in History

Focused survey of installation art by Sanford Biggers at the Brooklyn Museum

Seeing Stars: Visionary Drawing from the collection on view at the Menil Collection

Sotheby's London to offer important newly discovered and unseen early photographs by Linnaeus

Arco Gallerywalk, new idea from Arco Art Fair to boost visits to art galleries in Madrid

Large scale steel sculptures by Jonathan Prince at The Sculpture Garden at 590 Madison Avenue

First solo show in Mexico by Darío Villalba at Luis Adelantado Gallery in Mexico City

Longtime Michener Director/CEO Bruce Katsiff announces plan to step down

De Hallen Haarlem presents an international group exhibition centering on an artwork by Louise Bourgeois

The Rencontres D'Arles: Photography festival 2011 breaks attendance record

"What would you name a new worm?" asks UK museum

Edward Barber & Jay Osgerby: Ascent on view at Haunch of Venison in London

The Whitney announces team for second volume devoted to Warhol's films

Looters plunder $8.5M from Ivory Coast museum

Poland receives 2 stolen paintings seized in New York

September 23, 2011

"MemyselfandI: Photo portraits of Picasso" opens at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne

Historical importance of paintings by Frank Stella Examined in exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery

Recently rediscovered early body of work by Ad Reinhardt on view at The Pace Gallery

Exhibition of Bob Dylan's drawings and paintings on view at Gagosian Gallery in New York

Photographer Elliott Erwitt's archive to be housed at University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center

J. Paul Getty Trust and the Hellenic Republic sign agreement creating framework for cultural cooperation

Boldini and Dore highlight Christie's 19th Century European art sale in New York

Faces of the New China: Christie's announces the evening sale of an important private collection

Exhibition of new paintings by Belgian painter Raoul De Keyser at David Zwirner

Banksy's iconic Monkey Detonator sells for £97,250 at Bonhams Urban Art sale     

Beatles' anti-segregation 1965 contract sold for $23,000 by Nate D. Sanders Auctions

Chinese Gilt-Bronze Bell achieves $482,500 at Doyle New York's Asian works of art sale

Exhibition of paintings from the 1960s to the 80s by the late Milton Resnick at Cheim & Read

Phillips de Pury & Company to auction historic collection of over 4350 Swatch watches in Hong Kong

Newly acquired portraits of Johnny Vegas, Matt Lucas, and Jimmy Carr in National Portrait Gallery display

Site specific retrospective installation by pioneering Los Angeles artist Betye Saar at Roberts & Tilton

Carsten Höller wins the Enel Contemporanea Award 2011

Photos, films find profound in ordinary people

World's oldest running motor car to be auctioned at RM's Hershey sale

September 22, 2011

Tate Britain unveils John Martin's lost masterpiece for the first time in almost a century

The Rijksmuseum presents Johan Maurits & Frans Post: Two Dutchmen in Brazil

Sotheby's contemporary art evening auction to be highlighted by four masterworks by Clyfford Still

Marlborough Gallery presents an exhibition by Red Grooms on the theme of New York

Exhibition of artwork by Brigitte Kowanz, Shirley Shor, and Ingo Günther at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery

Sotheby's to sell the BAT Artventure Collection formerly known as the Peter Stuyvesant Collection Part III

South African artist William Kentridge exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest

Chiara Parisi appointed new Director of the cultural programs at the Monnaie de Paris

British artist Tris Vonna-Michell exhibits new work at Metro Pictures in New York   

Exhibition of photographs in the spirit of alchemy at Galerie Guido W. Baudach

Picasso and Braque: first exhibition to unite works from pivotal years at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Major collection of antique telephones will keep collectors "engaged" at Morphy Auctions

Russian art gets younger, less politicized as fourth Moscow Biennale opens

Florian Maier-Aichen's defiant new works at Baronian_Francey in Brussels

Leslie Hindman Auctioneers' fine jewelry and timepieces auction realizes over $3 million

Sotheby's sale of the philatelic collection of Lord Steinberg brings a total of $4.2 million

Rare blue diamond by Bulgari sells for 1.9 million pounds in Bonhams Fine Jewellery sale

Frieze Art Fair 2011 announces works to be installed at Sculpture Park

Bonhams Fall salon jewelry and watches sale a starry success

Swedish artist target of murder plot

September 21, 2011

Art Moscow welcomes over forty national and international Contemporary art galleries

Exhibition of portraits by Andy Warhol of the late Elizabeth Taylor at Gagosian Gallery

Works by Roy Lichtenstein from his celebrated Entablatures series at Paula Cooper Gallery

Museo de Arte de Ponce announces exhibition of masterpieces from the Prado Museum

Christie's announces fashion and accessories sale from the Elizabeth Taylor Collection

Cherry and Martin restages landmark 1970 exhibition "Photography into Sculpture"

National Portrait Gallery announces Lucian Freud portraits exhibition in February 2012

Medieval works of art from the Marquet de Vasselot Collection to be sold at Christie's in Paris

China Institute Gallery presents Blooming in the Shadows: Unofficial Chinese Art, 1974-1985

Sotheby's to sell an important private collection of works by Alexander Benois this November

Circus poster exhibition sensationally brings to life America's first colossal entertainment industry

World Monuments Fund announces two major grants for sites in Tanzania and Cambodia

Nelson-Atkins Museum Major Lender in Pan-Asian Buddhist Art Exhibition at Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts

Exhibition about the fragility and awe-inspiring nature of our oceans at the Pelham Art Center

Mussolini's duds sell for $5.5K at Texas auction

Polish Jewish museum to open in April 2013

Contemporary art from the Estate of Dr. Edmund P. Pillsbury, Oct. 26, at Heritage Auctions

InterAsia Auctions, the market leader in Asian philately, to hold stamps sale

Exhibit explores American Folk Art of quilts

Most Popular Last Seven Days

1.- Boy and an amateur archaeologist unearth legendary Danish king's trove in Germany

2.- Exhibition at The Met illustrates what visitors encountered at The palace of Versailles

3.- Philadelphia Museum of Art opens "Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950"

4.- Exhibition at Michael Hoppen Gallery presents a cross-section of works from Thomas Mailaender's career

5.- New York's Chelsea Hotel celebrity door auction raises $400,000

6.- Stevie Ray Vaughan's first guitar drives Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Auction to nearly $2.9 million

7.- Lichtenstein's Nude with Blue Hair tops $2.4 million sale of Modern & Contemporary Prints & Multiples

8.- $6.7 million Fancy Intense Blue Diamond sets auction record at Sotheby's New York

9.- Mexico court blocks sales of controversial Frida Kahlo Barbie doll

10.- Dutch museums to conduct new research on the paintings of Pieter de Hooch

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