By Scott Kirkpatrick
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be Wilson Hicks, the picture editor of LIFE Magazine in its heyday? Or at least wanted to see the whole story, not just the 10–20 pictures that went into famous photo essays like Eugene Smith's "Country Doctor," "Spanish Village," or "Nurse Midwife" stories? Google's image search facility offers that possibility. As you know, they recently announced that the entire LIFE photo archive is being digitized and made available online. About 20% of it is claimed to be there already. Pictures can be downloaded for noncommercial, personal use, or purchased as photographic prints. I haven't bought one, so I can't comment on the quality or dimensions of purchases, which are supplied by LIFE.
Here's how it works. On the Google front page in, e.g. Firefox, select "image" and then enter a search term, adding the phrase source:life at the end of the string. For example, "Country Doctor source:life" brings up 119 pictures, more than 100 of which were shot for the story, and printed by LIFE's darkroom team. The 23 pictures that ran in the photo essay are all there, plus establishing shots, shots of other people in his practice, other patients and incidents. A favorite outtake of mine is this one:
which displays Dr. Ceriani making a house call in the pouring rain. Another is:
for which the caption is "Country Doctor Ernest Ceriani and wife Bernetha printing out bills for his medical services, as they do once every three months (at her insistence) at their dining room table." Much has changed since then.
In the files for "Spanish Village" I found only the pictures which ran in LIFE, apparently since Smith printed those himself. Maude Callen, nurse midwife, is well represented by what looks like a mixture of Smith (more dramatically printed) and LIFE output. Again there seem to be more shots than could have run in the story. I don't remember seeing this one before:
...in which Maude Callen is arranging for a TB patient to be admitted to a state sanitorium.
I haven't found evidence of the "Drama beneath a City Window" essay yet. It's hard to know what search string to use, and perhaps it hasn't been digitized yet, or the Smith estate, since Smith was no longer under contract to LIFE at that time, may hold the photos. Trying various search strings involving windows, I did turn up this charming shot by Leonard McCombe:
Google offers you the chance to assign a star rating to each picture, link to your favorites, and add comments. I didn't feel the need to do that, but others may. Flikr away, and you will be pointing us all to more of the gold in this mine.
Featured Comment by Jim Richardson: "As someone who has done a bit of documentary photography over the years I learned significant parts of the craft at Smith's feet. Whether it was the printing or storytelling, there were great lessons to be learned.
"Many years ago I had the chance to do just what you are suggesting, in my case by taking a look at a couple of story files at the Center for Creative Photography. It was very, very instructive. This access on Google brings that experience to the public forum.
"When you can see more of the images you become aware of a profoundly workmanlike talent, someone who really worked a situation and then worked through the process of telling the story with the images at hand. Viewers should remember that what they can see on Google are just the ones that got printed. Smith had his failed pictures amid the contact sheets, too. And he wasn't always sure which of the images were the masterpieces. (That was surprising to me.)
"On the technical side, as I look at the images I am struck again by his lighting technique. Obviously he was doing a lot of interior lighting, and doing it very well. You can see it in the picture of the TB patient you posted. So, did he have a couple of assistants holding flash units and changing flashbulbs madly between shots? Some of it looks like bare bulb done very well, matching some of the available light (like light from dangling light bulbs) and keeping detail in outside scenes visible through the windows.
"His printing is pretty obvious. If I see flat shadows where somebody in the darkroom tried (poorly) to reveal facial detail in dark areas, I can probably figure this was not Smith doing the printing.
"I only met Smith once, when we were both at the University of Missouri where he was receiving the first World Understanding award. The occasion of our conversation was less austere. We were in some student's basement apartment late that night, both of us drunk beyond intelligence or caution. Leaning over a pinball machine (nice bit of furniture for a student apartment, I guess) I ask him about the famous story of spending days pouring his soul into a single print. 'Well,' he said, 'if it doesn't make a good print at least it makes a good story.'
"This guy knew what he was doing, every step of the way. I owe him."
[Jim is a National Geographic photographer with more than 20 stories in that magazine to his credit. See his website here. —MJ]
Featured Comment by Kenneth Jarecke: "Jim's post reminds me of a lesson I learned from...Jim himself (which I'm sure he wouldn't remember).
"Back in 1981, maybe '82. I was stringing for the Associated Press in Omaha. Jim was a staff photographer for the Omaha World Herald at the time. I had just shot people setting up for a farm equipment expo and ran the film through the Kodak Versamat.
"The Versamat was a wonderful machine, or so I thought at the time. All you did was feed your exposed Tri-X into one side, and in about the time it took to finish a styrofoam bowl of Chili-Mac from the vending machine you had dry, toasty negatives coming hot out of the other side.
"Needless to say, I didn't really know what a negative was supposed to look like back in those days. Exposing for the shadows? Why would I when I could get an extra two stops by just exposing for the highlights!
"I was looking at my negatives and wondering (aloud) why I only had clear film base where there should have been a face under the John Deere hat, and also why the grain structure on my negatives looked like a piece of sandpaper.
"Jim, a guy who I only knew as a big-time photographer and a guy who still got his hands wet when he processed film (sucker), turned to me and said, stay away from that machine, it's no good.
"That got me thinking. I don't think I ever used the Versamat again.
"Jim moved on to the Denver Post, I believe only a few weeks later. I never talked to him again until years later.
"John Gaps replaced him at the paper. I was watching John print one day and he was using potassium ferricyanide to work on some prints. I asked him what it was. He said it was what W. Eugene Smith used to bring out the highlights in his prints.
"I said, 'Who?'
"Yeah, that got me thinking too!"
[Ken is an accomplished photojournalist who took the best-known image of the Gulf War. He has won many awards, including the Leica Medal of Excellence. His website is here. —MJ]