W. Eugene Smith on Breaking the Rules in Photography

The American Society of Media Photographers recently discovered the transcript of an interview of W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978), conducted by the portraitist Philippe Halsmann and the society’s first president. The interview took place in New York during an American Society of Media Photographers meeting in 1956, although the organization is unsure of the date. The New York Times provides a transcript.

Their conversation covered a variety of topics. In particular, however, Mr. Halsmann asked about staging photographs, a then-controversial practice that is now taboo in documentary and journalistic photography. Mr. Smith defended the practice in certain circumstances. The most revealing question is at the end.

Q. Where were you born?
A. Kansas.
Q. You know that Alfred Adler, the discoverer of the inferiority complex, believes the youngest child has a sense of inferiority which forces him to prove his own value. Do you feel this to be true with your own personality?
A. Definitely.
Q. Did you go to school in Kansas?
A. Frequently.

I had a photographic scholarship at Notre Dame — which they created for me. But after a while, I found I was asked to do only commercial, publicity photos, and so — I had to quit.

Q. Why are you a photographer?
A. I discovered that saturated hypo was good for my poison ivy. Now, Groucho.

I fell into photography through my desire to design aircraft. I met a fine news photographer, Frank Knowles, who encouraged me.

I don’t think I became a real photographer until I made a real acquaintanceship with music. That’s why I make my layouts the way I do. Photography happens to be my means of communication. But I do not feel I am a photographer singular. I feel that my art or my necessity is communication, and this could apply to many branches of the communicative art — whether it be writing or photography.

Since I am somewhat adequate as a photographer, I remain with it. I am probably more in command of it than any other medium. I respect it highly as a medium. It has its own very definite purpose.

Q. When do you feel that the photographer is justified in risking his life to take a picture?
A. I can’t answer that. It depends on the purpose. Reason, belief and purpose are the only determining factors. The subject is not a fair measure.

I think the photographer should have some reason or purpose. I would hate to risk my life to take another bloody picture for the Daily News, but if it might change man’s mind against war, then I feel that it would be worth my life. But I would never advise anybody else to make this decision. It would have to be their own decision. For example, when I was on the carrier, I didn’t want to fly on Christmas Day because I didn’t want to color all the other Chistmases for my children.

Q. Here were people in deep sorrow and you were putting flash bulbs in their eyes, disturbing their sorrow. What’s the justification of your intrusion?
A. I think I would not have been able to do this if I had not been ill the day before. I was ill with stomach cramps in a field and a man who was a stranger to me came up and offered me a drink of wine which I did not want, but which out of the courtesy of his kindness, I accepted. And the next day by coincidence, he came rushing to me and said, “Please, my father has just died, and we must bury him and will you take me to the place where they fill out the papers?” And I went with him to the home and I was terribly involved with the sad and compassionate beauty of the wake and when I saw him come close to the door, I stepped forward and said, “Please sir, I don’t want to dishonor this time but may I photograph?” and he said, “I would be honored.”

I don’t think a picture for the sake of a picture is justified — only when you consider the purpose. For example, I photographed a woman giving birth, for a story on a midwife. There are at least two gaps of great pictures in my pictures. One is D-Day in the Philippines, of a woman who is struggling giving birth in a village that has just been destroyed by our shelling, and this woman giving birth against this building — my only thought at that time was to help her. If there had been someone else at least as competent to help as I was then, I would have photographed. But as I stood as an altering circumstance — no damn picture is worth it!

Q. I remember your picture of a Spanish woman throwing water into the street. Was this staged?
A. I would not have hesitated to ask her to throw the water. (I don’t object to staging if and only if I feel that it is an intensification of something that is absolutely authentic to the place.)
And I think the most revealing Q and A exchange:
Q. Cartier-Bresson never asks for this…. Why do you break this basic rule of candid photography?
A. I didn’t write the rules — why should I follow them? Since I put a great deal of time and research to know what I am about? I ask and arrange if I feel it is legitimate. The honesty lies in my — the photographer’s — ability to understand.
Read the rest here.

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