Volumes one and two (open, on top) of the second draft (of five) of the manuscript of W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Substance by Jim Hughes. On the wall is a print of "Dance of the Flaming Coke" that Gene left to Jim in his will.
Written and illustrated by Jim Hughes
[Author's note: Below is text that I ultimately deleted, for reasons of space, from my Smith biography. The story of the Third Annual Miami Conference—and it is a story, and an important one, historically, that still needs to be told—made it through all five drafts, but at the very end was cut when push finally came to shove. This was the cut I regretted more than any other.]
In 1957, Wilson Hicks, by then a lecturer in journalism at the University of Miami, had established what quickly became a much anticipated event: The Annual Photojournalism Conference, sponsored jointly by the university and the A.S.M.P. [then known as the American Society of Magazine Photographers]. For the 1959 meeting, to be held in April, Hicks—whose sense of story evidently remained keen even in retirement [from his longtime post as Picture Editor of LIFE magazine]—asked Ed Thompson [Managing Editor of LIFE] to deliver the opening keynote address, and W. Eugene Smith, his one-time star photographer and perennial thorn in the side, not only to exhibit his photographs in the lecture hall through the four-day confab, but to give the closing talk.
Hicks sent Gene a sketch of the hall. According to Gene's notations on the sketch, he decided to show original Pittsburgh layouts as drawn [to his specifications] by his friend, the photographer Harold Feinstein, perhaps displayed flat on tables, and a combination of 11x14 bleed-mounted prints supplemented by a scattering of 5x7 proof prints all hung to utilize every inch of the available 128 linear feet of wall space.
With Harold's help, Gene loaded Pittsburgh into his station wagon; then, just to be on the safe side, he included selections from his most famous essays. Cardboard cartons were packed window to window and floorboard to roof. The two men, accompanied by Gene's wife Carmen, drove straight through to Miami. They arrived after midnight, only hours before Thompson's scheduled 9 a.m. opening talk.
Photographer Flip Schulke, then a young teaching assistant who had been assigned to help Gene and Harold mount the exhibit, was up and waiting.
"There were just hundreds of prints, covering every inch of floor," Schulke recalled in a 1976 interview with me for a profile of Smith I wrote for Quest 77 magazine [the initial stroke, truth be told, in my own 12-year biographical quest to understand the enigma named Smith]. "If he could have done a book on Pittsburgh," Schulke continued, "all these people who have been screaming about the changing American city could have seen the beginnings; the old cities, how the changes occur, the power structure, it was there like a dictionary, like an encyclopedia.
"...When he shoots, he said, he has a layout in mind, a feel for which pictures will go with the others, which will stand alone. Then he works hard to light one thing. Gene said there are two ways to light: one, to build up the light intensity to reproduce exactly the way it looks to almost anybody's eye; two, to use emphasis to show what you feel it looks like, rather than what you know it looks like.
"You come into some situations where there's a feeling, and you want to make light to give others that feeling. I asked Gene, 'Do you feel this interferes with the truth?' He said that it is terribly important, for truth, to know a hell of a lot about the situation and the people.
"He had a picture of a house, a rich man's house; there were two window panes that he made to look like two eyes of a bat, really evil; he was showing us the people who'd made Pittsburgh look the way it did at the time. He described how he'd gotten an oppressive feeling from that house, and then had to translate that into an image that would actually scare people looking at it. The viewer [of photographs] is not walking around among gray and dirty buildings being influenced by the air.
"...By taking me by the hand—he was a very soft, gentle guy, you know, and he was very kind to this young kid asking stupid questions. He showed me how. Nobody had seen [the entire] Pittsburgh essay. He had a linear story there.
"He changed my life."
That morning, the conference opened with a comparatively small Pittsburgh show on the walls. Schulke remembered a feeling of sadness when hundreds of prints had to go back into their cartons.
Ed Thompson's keynote speech was titled "Who's Looking? Who's Listening?" According to Popular Photography's John Durniak, who reported on the conference for the magazine, "Thompson, the most important man in photojournalism today, took the rostrum...rolled up his sleeves, loosened his tie, and proceeded to talk about the limitations of space in LIFE in relation to the number of stories that come along each week, the inadequacy of television news coverage and interpretation, the courage he has seen displayed by LIFE photographers, [and] of the 'partnership' he believes should exist between the editor and the photographer in high-calibre photojournalism."
In a 1980 interview I taped-recorded for my book, Thompson remembered that when he mounted the rostrum, Gene "had just barely got his last print up. I saw Gene in the back of the room, and I started to speak. I thought I saw Gene go to sleep; I knew he had driven all night. Then there was a thunderstorm, and the lights went out.
"They gave me a flashlight with a red lens on it, and I couldn't read my notes. So I decided to take the opportunity, just to get it off my chest, to say that in Gene's notable stories, the 'Midwife,' 'Spanish Village,' and so forth, in each case someone else had spotted the subject and gotten the factual material for backup. I didn't think I made much of an impression."
[It should be noted here that for the two essays specifically cited by Thompson, and many others published by LIFE, my subsequent research consistently showed the opposite to be true. Gene Smith always proved to be his own best researcher. Smith surely heard Thompson's self-serving comment; that he held his tongue is a testament to Smith's restraint at that difficult moment, particularly in light of Thompson's earlier reluctance to publish Pittsburgh as envisioned by Smith. But Gene's apparent composure would be short-lived. —J.H.]
That night, there was a party at a nearby motel and at one point, as the evening wore to a close for most participants, Ed Thompson found himself alone in a room with Gene Smith, John Durniak, and Romeo Martinez, the legendary editor of Swiss Camera magazine who on Friday was scheduled to talk about European photography.
"Gene still hadn't had any sleep, I don't think," Thompson recalled, "and Durniak said he was going to be a go-between. I said that I didn't realize that there was anything really to be made up between Gene and LIFE."
"Actually, John Durniak was fighting with Thompson about me," Gene later told a friend in a conversation he himself tape recorded, "and I came into the middle of the argument. Somebody asked what I thought of the Pittsburgh essay [as just published in the 1959 Popular Photography Annual], and I said I thought it was a failure that is going to outlast its flaws. Thompson glared at me with the most diabolical look in his eye that I had ever seen."
"That confrontation between Thompson and Gene was epic," Romeo Martinez told me during our 1980 interview. "They were eye to eye. Two men who hated one another, or rather, Gene who hated Thompson.
"Thompson said, 'I do my job as I intend to do it, and you think that I sacrificed you. All right, you can think that. I had to protect what I am doing, and not what you are doing.'
"Two people with two bottles of whiskey. The whole thing between them came up. Just facing each other until they can see the bottom of their relationship. Sometimes, with Gene screaming. Sometimes, very, very emotional."
"There was this fake mantle in the room," Thompson told me, "and Gene kind of leaned on it and cried quite a bit. So finally, I half carried him to his room."
"It went on from 1 a.m. to 6 in the morning," Martinez remembered, from a somewhat different perspective, "when Thompson said, 'Oh, my plane, I have to leave.' They looked at each other, and it was a moment when, I suspected, these two men would come, finally, one toward the other. From Gene it was very clear.
"Fortunately for the sake of Gene's pride, Thompson just turned and went out."
The next afternoon, Romeo Martinez gave his scheduled talk—in essence, a call for individualism, fresh thinking and higher standards. "I call myself a 'utilizer' of pictures, the editor announced to a somewhat surprised audience, according to Rus Arnold's report in Writer's Digest. "Creative photographers are rule breakers, while editors tend to be conformists."
At that opportune moment, "in a series of informal moves," as Durniak described the maneuver in his Pop Photo article, "Gene Smith joined Martinez on the platform, and the talk turned into a semi-panel discussion.
"Before long, the question of the photographer's 'control' of his [or her] pictures came up. How far should he be allowed to go in controlling layout, or what is 'said' with them? Harold Feinstein raised his hand in the audience. A microphone was delivered to him and for the next five minutes he delivered one of the finest arguments for the rights of a photographer this writer has heard.
"He placed the emphasis squarely on the photographer being a man, and not just a tool editors push around. 'It's not a matter of communication, it's a matter of what you have to say,' said Feinstein. 'It's the man, and what the man has to say.' "
"A musician as well as a photographer," Rus Arnold reported in Writer's Digest, "Feinstein insisted that what's happening in photography is what's happening in music, the clash between the creative urge and commercialism. 'Music,' he cried out, 'is Beethoven, not Muzak.... In photojounalism, too, we have our artists who dare to be individuals.... This is what editors seem to forget about.
"'The greatest problem seems to be to move the photojournalist into being himself, into revealing himself.'
"He pointed to Eugene Smith's pictures on the walls. 'You are seeing the revolution. Here it is.'"
Most of the audience seemed moved by Feinstein's impassioned plea, but not everyone agreed. One editor in attendance got to his feet and announced, evidently addressing himself directly to Gene, based on tape recordings made of the entire proceedings by photographer Al Woolley, "This business of aesthetics in photojournalism—it is a thing that we can handle [only] occasionally, mainly because people read magazines, they don't look at them.
"You cannot assume—any more than a Van Gogh or a Hemingway can assume—that you have communication through being an artist. You can express yourself, but you can't assume you have communication. Communication is a thing that people get through understanding, let's face up to it, through mediocrity."
Considering that this challenge struck to the core of Gene's concerns, his response was surprisingly moderate and controlled. "I don't think that, necessarily, mediocrity will communicate best," Gene responded from the podium. "I think that there has to be such a superb clarity, at times, that there may be many levels which can be interpreted, and I do believe that in such instances there has to be a very direct, straightforward level.
"But I also think that there should be quality in the photography, or the story, or the layout, or the writing, which can build for those who are usually insulted by picture magazines."
Gene closed the conference with a talk titled "My Way with the Camera." Wilson Hicks, in his introduction, said he'd just made a tour of Gene's "new" exhibit. Again staying up all night, Gene and Harold Feinstein had taken Pittsburgh off the walls and replaced it with a survey of Gene's long career—including, most notably, the essays Thompson had referred to so bitingly in his keynote address.
"I just can't believe some of these things," Hicks announced. "This business of photography is a lot of things, including detail. And the printing, the exposure! Here's perfection.
"These pictures are only up this morning, and I hope you will take as much time as you can to have a good look at these marvelous prints. I have just never seen anything like them myself in such gorgeous number."
Gene began his talk in a determined but weary voice, speaking from a pastiche of notes from previous lectures. Its theme: the "dream of photography" that he had pursued since he was 14. "It has been my own great adventure," he declared. "It was always something that had an automatic goal which moved on and on and on. Wherever I reached, it reached even further. I never dreamed that I could never see the horizon of it, where its limitations rested. I have limitations. I don't know where the limitations of photography are. I have never seen them."
About the photographs on the walls that now surrounded him, Gene said, "I have found it necessary to come very close with situations until the people involved either accept me or reject me, and from this I proceed until I can photograph as a participant in their lives rather than as an intruder.... The pictures that are around us today are both old friends and new friends. I can feel every one of them. They have twisted my body in the making of the print, or the moment of anxiety, or the feeling that crossed between us as it happened."
It didn't take long for Gene to deviate totally from his planned talk and make, with obvious passion, a call to the future. "There is a way to reach the average reader," he declared, "and not alienate the un-average reader...I believe the future is where it is possible, and must be possible, to take this profession from however far it has come and to see and to grow with it.... We have a great many problems of understanding in the world today, and they are grave.... I have both dread and excitement in this age that we are being born into. I don't know where it will go. I am not sure I can keep up with it. But it is tremendous with danger and potential of greatness. And I think one of the things we must try to do is to find a way within that to preserve a measure of the greatness of past cultures, and the dignities that have been possible.
"Whatever is coming, I doubt if it will eliminate the need for arts, and the compassions and the faiths and the homes that man has gained, used, lost, and gained again, so many times—and has never quite let go out."
At the end of the talk, Wilson Hicks looked around to thank Gene, who had disappeared from the podium. Gene did reappear at the final luncheon to accept the A.S.M.P.'s Photographer of the Year plaque, given as much for his "inspirational force" as for past accomplishments. At the presentation ceremony, Hicks called Gene, "W. Eugenius Smith."
Carmen flew back to New York with Gene's award, and Gene and Harold packed up the station wagon for the long drive home. On a backcountry road in North Carolina, they passed a black sharecropper's cabin on fire. "We pulled off and went to help this guy who was running in and out of the house with his meager belongings," Feinstein remembered during our 1980 interview. "Both Gene and I began running in and out, too, carrying out what we could.
"But at one point, it became an inferno. I stopped, and the man whose house it was stopped. But Gene kept going in. Finally I grabbed my camera and photographed Gene carrying out some sort of picture in a frame.
"That photograph says a lot about Gene. It also wasn't lost on me that I was the one standing there with a camera, and not the other way around."
"I kept trying to find whatever legal papers the man had," Gene later explained to some friends in a taped conversation in 1969. "Keeping an eye on the ceiling which was about to cave in, I made another trip and when I came out, all these whites were lined up on the road, just kind of enjoying the scene. I was furious."
From Draft 2, Volume 2, W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Substance. Deleted Material did not appear in the published 1989 McGraw-Hill edition. Restored text © 1987 / 2017, all rights reserved, by Jim Hughes. When I originally wrote this section, the working title for the book was "Larger Than Life."
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Mark Roberts: "Coincidentally, there is an article in the Guardian today (6 August) about W. Eugene Smith and a new book about him."
Michael Perini: "Just brilliant; thanks to Mr. Hughes and to Mike. It was also wonderful to see recognition of the role of Harold Feinstein, a brilliant photographer in his own right."
Mike R: "Thank you, Jim, I really enjoyed this. The gift from Gene must mean a great deal to you. I saw the exhibition 'Let Truth be the Prejudice' in the 1970s when it came to London. I had to make a 400+ mile train journey to see it. Worth every mile. I was impressed to read, here, Gene's statement of how he used 'emphasis to show what you feel it looks like, rather than what you know it looks like.' He would have had fun with the World Press Photo judges."
Jim Hughes replies: Re 'I saw the exhibition "Let Truth be the Prejudice" in the 1970s when it came to London. I had to make a 400+ mile train journey to see it. Worth every mile': I believe the exhibit you saw was hung the Barbican Art Gallery in London in 1986. It was a remounting of the 1971 retrospective "Let Truth Be the Prejudice," which was held in 1971 at the Jewish Museum in New York City, and was shown once more in Japan before it was put into storage. The Barbican exhibit was essentially a remounting of original prints based upon photographs of Smith's initial installation, which he did himself with a lot of help from his friends. I know, because the curator, the photographer John Benton-Harris, asked me to write a long text, which the Barbican offered to the show's visitors in a nicely printed and illustrated six-page gatefold booklet.
I hope you kept yours, Mike.
Here's an excerpt from my text: "I first met Gene Smith while he was preparing the exhibit that would be called 'Let Truth Be the Prejudice.' Visiting his loft on Sixth Avenue, I was confronted with what seemed like thousands of photographs floating in the dark air of a cave. Prints hung from clotheslines strung every which way, and I quickly lost any sense of direction as I was ushered into the depths of the place and seated in a leather recliner, the only piece of furniture that wasn't covered with pictures. I remember thinking, 'If there's a fire, I'll never find my way out of this maze.'
"The mess was ungodly, but it was an accurate reflection of the way Smith worked. 'When I edit,' he once told a friend, 'I spread my ideas out, trying to find a way through them.' For Smith, an idea could be anything, one of the thousands of 3x5 file cards on which he recorded his thoughts; a Beethoven violin concerto; a passage from Sean O'Casey; a tumbler full of Scotch. Mainly, however, Smith's ideas were in his pictures. 'Aware to think in many lights,' he wrote, '...my cameras as note takers for my mind, so I may place evidence before others...telling them why I am seldom bored.' "