I discovered this interview while researching Smith’s work. I found it to be a very interesting point of view. The interviewer asks him about his life and methods, and Smith gives insight into his process and thoughts.
By the mid-1950s, W. Eugene Smith had established himself as the premier photo essayist at Life magazine by creating “Country Doctor,” “Spanish Village” and “Nurse Midwife.” In 1955 he left Life, joined the Magnum photo agency and began his exhaustive documentation of Pittsburgh.
The American Society of Media Photographers recently discovered the transcript of an interview of Mr. Smith, conducted by the great portraitist Philippe Halsmann and the society’s first president. The interview apparently took place in New York during an American Society of Media Photographers meeting in 1956, although the organization is unsure of the date. The transcript has been lightly edited.
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.
Where were you born?
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?
Did you go to school in Kansas?
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.
Why are you a photographer?
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.
When do you feel that the photographer is justified in risking his life to take a picture?
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.
I remember particularly your pictures of a Spanish wake [above], of people looking at the dead man’s face — how many exposures did you make?
Two, and one to turn on. I didn’t wish to intrude.
[Piero] Saporiti, the Time-Life correspondent in Spain, told me once that you had used petroleum lamps.
Saporiti has a marvelous memory, so imaginative! This was my version of available light. I used a single flash in the place of a candle.
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?
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!
I remember your picture of a Spanish woman throwing water into the street. Was this staged?
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.)
Cartier-Bresson never asks for this…. Why do you break this basic rule of candid photography?
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.
Why do you print your own pictures?
The same reason a great writer doesn’t turn his draft over to a secretary… I will retouch.
Avedon said that there are three steps in making a photograph: first the taking of the pictures, then the darkroom work, then the retouching. He showed me one unretouched picture in which the girl’s skirt fell straight; in the final version it was flying out.
I would have gotten her skirt up somehow.
How much did your Pittsburgh Opus cost in time?
It cost the lining of my stomach, and much more beside. … While working on it I resigned (from a certain unnamed picture magazine).
[At this point in the transcript, the Q. and A. format is broken, though it goes on: “After questioning back and forth, Philippe pinned him down to this: Smith had explained that he had worked on the opus for a period of several years, which included three months that he was on staff, which he considered ‘stolen.’ “
“There’s no way to evaluate it,” Smith said. “If I was able to print exclusively, it still would take at least a year. I now have 200 prints from 2,000 negatives….”]
[The transcript resumes as before.] What would anybody in the world do with 200 prints?
Each print I have made represents a chapter — the 200 represent a synthesis.
You won’t put any time limit on this work?
It was also sidetracked for a period of time for doing an almost equally difficult color project — one of my worst failures, which I consider a going to school.
How can this be financed? Is there any way, here in America today, to pay a man back for this work?
How long did it take Joyce to do “Ulysses”? I could never be rested within myself without doing this.
But what if the photographer does not have the financial means?
I will advise them not to do it, and I will hope they do.
What if nobody sees it? Besides a few friends?
Answer this and you will see how artists have acted throughout the bloody ages. The goal is the work itself.