Voice Choices

W. Eugene Smith: Art, Not News

by

You’ve seen many of these black-and-white photos reproduced countless times—the pietà of a Japanese mother floating her deformed daughter in the bath, a G.I. cradling his wounded comrade on Okinawa, a welder’s goggles glinting in bright contrast to his grimy face. Yet here, divorced from the context of Life magazine photo essays, the individual frames reveal Smith to be not just an emphatic photojournalist but a wholly brilliant artist. While it is generally easy to determine the subject of these images, Smith’s narratives derive from more than sundry detail. Consider the stirring composition of 1944’s Burial at Sea: the corpse, a white, evocatively lumpy streak, is poised mid-drop, the ship’s deck providing a sweeping diagonal that emphasizes the finality of the solemn drama. A similarly powerful setup juxtaposes a tilting American flag against a Klan cross awaiting the torch. For a shot of Spanish women winnowing grain, Smith set his camera low to capture the weight of their labor, recalling the strain conveyed by Caravaggio when he painted St. Peter’s executioners raising his upside-down cross. That Smith evokes such classical comparisons is testament to his deep instinct—akin to that of a great athlete—for the physical grace and emotional resonance of the human form.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: July 2. Continues through Aug. 1, 2008