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Friday, 21 November 2008


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Good call. I was wondering what to do with this new service. Virtual picture editor seems like as good a use as any.

I don't know about Wilson Hicks but I know at least one image I could parse before publishing.
I guess even with professional photo journalists you turn up with one of these occasionally.

Other google image search strings to try:

W. Eugene Smith source:life

* source:life

Learned something: never knew that Capa had been in The Netherlands (soon after the liberation, apparently).

capa dutch source:life

"...I know at least one image I could parse before publishing."

I don't understand this comment. What is "parse" in this context?

Reference W.E. Smith's lighting techniques, in the book "Darkroom" from Lustrum Press (1977) he (Smith) describes two instances of how he dealt with difficult lighting. For the famous picture of 'Schweitzer at His Desk':

"The exposure itself was 1/5 or 1/2 second, along with a strobe that I covered with a handkerchief and bounced off the dirty brown floor. If I had just used the oil lamp, there would have been a sharp shadow across one side of Schweitzer's face and none of the softness of detail in the backgound. The long exposure gives the feeling of the lamplight, and the strobe gives the detail. When it came to printing, I had to bring down the whites around the edges on the left where some papers were intruding."

And,, from his Minamata series:

"The photograph of 'Tomoko in the Bath'... represents another of those impossible lighting situations. There were high windows almost the length of the picture. If I had used only the light that was entering the room, I would have had no shadow detail on the near side of the mother's body at all. In this photograph, I also happened to use a small, battery-operated strobe, this time bounced off a fairly clean brown ceiling instead of a dirty brown floor."

Smith goes on to describe the extensive manipuatations he made to the print to get it the way he wanted it to be.

Back at the beginning of the article, he says, "If the light is difficult, I sometimes take a meter reading, but then all I do is give the longest exposure possible under the circumstances, and develop the film by inspection."



Thanks for reminding me of those references. I think I may have seen them before (in the long lost ages of my photographic development.)

I am struck by two things. First he had a pretty darn good working knowledge of how much light a strobe fired through a handkerchief bounced off a dirty brown floor would produce. I don't think he was carrying around a flash meter in that era.

Second, his comment about working in difficult situations was right on the money. Dogma at the time, of course, was to produce the thinest negative you could produce that would maintain detail in the shadows, etc. But in fact many of us working in frankly terrible lighting conditions (and following in Smith's larger-than-life footsteps) found the opposite to be true. LIke many doing such work, I soon adopted that strategy: expose for the shadows and let the highlights go to hell if you have to. You can deal with them in the darkroom later. But you can't get that Smith glow in your prints without beefy detail in the shadows.

Often that meant that I would back off on the ASA meter settings. Using ASA 250 or 320 for Tri-X if I were developing in D-76 and perhaps ASA 1000 if developing in Acufine. (Then, if in doubt, I'd open up another stop.) This produced open shadows that you could print pretty easily. Usually it would require split variable contrast printing, switching from a contrasty filter for the shadows for the initial print exposure, then putting in a flatter filter to burn in the highlights.

When Smith says he had to "bring down the whites around the edges on the left where some papers were intruding" I suspect that he did it by removing the negative from the enlarger and just burning in that part with white light. Looking at his prints you can see large areas where he used some such technique, I think. (Or you could just move the easel over to another enlarger that you had set up for the purpose of darkening down tough areas. Or some photographers just used a small penlight on those recalcitrant areas.)

Much of this is recreated today in digital cameras that attempt to deal with dark shadows. Nikon calls theirs D-Lighting. Bring up the ISO in the shadows, then tone down the highlights. Pretty much the same trick (but a lot faster and easier to execute.)

Regardless, Smith was the master. But many of his darkroom techniques probably wouldn't pass muster in the world of photojournalism today.

By the way, I wonder what kind of strobes? Maybe the old Graflex?


Gene Smith's lighting tools were flashbulbs until sometime in the 1950s, according to hints in the Jim Hughes biography, "Shadow and Substance." It seems that he worked alone in Kremmling, CO, in 1948, had Ted Castle and Nina Peinado (who spoke French and Spanish) working with him on the Spanish village story, and had Berni Schoenfeld plus another assistant with him for the Nurse-Midwife assignment. And of course, Aileen Smith helped in Minamata. Each of the Life assignments lasted many weeks in the shooting stage. He is described during that period as moving about silently with five cameras draped on him, magically finding ladders and chairs to stand on for high viewpoints. Managing fill light as well should have required at least four or five hands.

There doesn't seem to be any doubt about his dedication to each print and his long darkroom hours. Many people remark on this in the Hughes book. I lived in Croton on Hudson for many years, knew people who had gone to school with Patrick and Juanita Smith, and met a few of the photographers who were detailed by Magnum to work with him and extract publishable prints from the Pittsburgh series. Their stories are all consistent.

Some of Smith's ferricyanide bleach methods certainly did change the picture to more closely match what he felt. I guess that wouldn't pass anymore...


A book entitled W. Eugene Smith, Master of the Photographic Essay was published by Aperture in 1981 and shows many of the photographs used in Smith's essays (as well as outtakes) in Life, Newsweek, Collier's and others including unpublished work.

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