W. Eugene Smith at Robert Mann Gallery

W. Eugene Smith will be exhibited from November 3 through December 23, 2005. A reception will be held on Thursday, November 3 from 6-8pm.

I strongly encourage you all to see the Eugene Smith exhibit. Although Smith, dead since 1978, would not, under our stated objectives for the collection, be part of the purview of our photography committee, this show demonstrates, at the highest level, the potential of documentary photography. Smith photography, long established as a canon in the history of photography, is little known to the long separate and aloof interests of art museums and art galleries. That there continue to be galleries such as Robert Mann solely showing photography only points out that there has been and continues to be a separate precinct for the medium of photography. But as inroads have been made in these last decades whereby some photographers’ (so called) documentary work can now be seen in many museums and galleries, this show should be see, if only for an abject lesson as to what can be done with this medium. This exhibit assembles vintage prints of the “classics”, those famous images that would have been included in any comprehensive examination of Smiths work.

Smith worked as a photojournalist (perhaps most famously for Life Magazine), and nominally his photographs reported on human life. Perhaps his most renowned images were made in World War 2, but after the war, he did photo essays about country doctors, industrial workers, and the human struggle with environmental depredation and poverty.

The descriptive or illustrative use for photography can be seen every day in newspapers and magazines, but the photographs hanging at Mann point out that photography can, at once be both reportorial and transcendent.

With the photographic technology now accessible by virtually everyone, all manner of life is being recorded every day, and those results, as well as news photographs, could be labeled as documentary photography. When is it that documentary photographs should be hung on gallery walls as art? Every day written accounts about people or events are published, but virtually none of it would be characterized as literary works. Now and again, reporters’ accounts do become the stuff of literature. Analogously, shouldn’t there be a distinction between descriptive photographs and those that transcend description, and in doing so become art?

Smith was a photojournalist whose work consistently showed an intuitive sense of composition coupled with an awareness of the expressive qualities of photographic materials. Unlike a drawing or painting where the elements are combined and organized within the picture to construct a composition, a photographer, has at times, to instantaneously orient the camera frame in relationship to the subject. If the subject is animate, and comprises a multitude of elements, it takes a quick and instinctual eye to bring the camera to the chosen distance, angle and relationship to the subject. Like Cartier Bresson’s photographs, it is impossible to wish that the composition of his imagery were any different. In looking at Smith’s photographs, it becomes evident just how finely his sensibilities were tuned. With the exception of a few images which border on treacle, his photographs encapsulate a varied portrayal of human emotion. Photographing mostly with available light, his black and white prints have rich, dark shadows, and strong highlights. The work in this show is essential. At once it describes aspects of the human condition, and also probes the potential for artistic expression.

I am not positing the idea that contemporary photography should be carried on in the manner of Eugene Smith, but I do think that his work represents a high water mark for documentary work. When we look at documentary work today, we should ask if the work is simply reporting events (dramatic or otherwise) or do the photographs tell us about the potentials of the medium and the sensibilities of the artist. Smith’s work does both.