The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

T.O.P. Ten: Number 2

W. Eugene Smith, Tomoko Uemura in her Bath, Minamata, 1972

The Concerned Photographer

If Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" is photography's madonna, then the last of the many great photographs of Gene Smith, Tomoko Uemura in her Bath, is our pietà.

That's a properly exalted way of looking at these pictures, but it's a little too pat, too, because there are important differences. A madonna is an archetype, an idealization of mother and infant. The picture of the young mother in the pea pickers' camp and her three children is no idealization. It's a portrait of the hard mantle of responsibility that every parent bears and that every other parent understands, a plain picture of the "grinding" quality of poverty, of worry, and of care—but, crucially, strength and forebearance, too. Despite all its formal perfection and its lovely tones (still stunning after all these years), it would be nothing without that. It is the woman acting as a support and a source of strength for her children—surrounded on three sides by them, literally as well as figuratively their center—that makes the picture universal.

Smith's picture of Tomoko is even more complicated and layered. A pietà (the word is Italian for "pity") is traditionally the obverse of the Madonna, a depiction of Mary mourning her dead son, and that's universal enough and plenty poignant enough: psychologists say that the death of a child is #1 on the list of stressors a human being can experience, and you don't have to be a master of empathy to be able to feel the truth of that. But Smith's Minamata project was an early environmental exposé. Tomoko Uemura was born with massive birth defects caused by environmental poisoning from a chemical plant. She's not dead; and her mother is not grieving. In fact, what's remarkable about the picture—again, in addition to its really breathtaking formal and tonal perfection—is the obvious humanity of Tomoko and, especially, the infinite caring, gentleness, and sympathy in her mother's gaze. Like a great masterpiece of music, you could look at that mother's expression for the rest of your life and never exhaust its human richness and its connection to the elemental selflessness and depth of parental love. But the reason why connecting these pictures to their universal archetypes doesn't quite tell the whole story is that the six people in these two pictures remain real people in real circumstances. That they can access such classic human themes so obviously and directly is impressive, but it's their relationship to real events and immediate circumstances that makes them great photographs.

For at least twenty years, there existed a sort of code among photographers of the highest ambition that went by the label of "concerned photography." I believe it was coined by, and maybe even defined by, Cornell Capa, but I admit I haven't done the research. I don't know, either, whether Gene Smith just embodied it or to what degree he might have inspired it. But it's okay that all the ligatures are a bit of a mush to me; Smith was not a man with good boundaries. He was a profoundly conflicted man, probably a masochist, certainly a tortured soul, and there were no borders to either his passion or his commitment. He ended up being part of the Minamata story himself, not just a reporter of it—his beating at the hands of Chisso's thugs (crippling him for good, although he had certainly not been kind to, or easy on, his body and his nervous system up until that point) helped form public opinion and extended the reach of the story in the broader world.

If you can get a hold of his biography, W. Eugene Smith, Shadow and Substance by Jim Hughes, it is potentially one of those life-changing books for us photographers. But be sure you attend to Smith's pictures, sooner or later. No photographer I know anything about was ever more rawly emotional. His life was chaos, and as a man he was a wreck, a mess. But his art soars.


Previous Posts in The Online Photographer's Top Ten Greatest Photographs Ever Made:

10. The Equivalent
9. The Image of Woman
8. Self and Other
7. Witness
6. Significance
5. The Land
4. Access
3. The Portrait

Featured Comment by Dave Jenkins: "Just for the record, the 'concerned photographer' term comes from two books titled The Concerned Photographer and The Concerned Photographer II. Edited by Cornell Capa, they were published by Grossman in 1968 and 1972, respectively. The first volume contained photographs by Robert Capa, David Seymour, Andre Kertesz, Leonard Freed, Dan Weiner and Werner Bischof; volume II featured Marc Riboud, Roman Vishniac, Bruce Davidson, Gordon Parks, Ernst Haas, Hiroshi Hamaya, Donald McCullin, and W. Eugene Smith."


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Funny you should publish this photograph today, I was talking about it the other day to a friend of mine. I was saying how 28 years ago I hung the print of this in gallery I worked in at the time and how the image lives in my head to this day, a perfect illustration of the profound influence of great photography on our perception of humanity even in this day of media saturation. Thanks for bringing this forward again it is a photograph worth seeing.

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Mike-
I could not agree more with your choice or your comments. That Smith photograph has always been a stab in the heart for me. For anyone who lives near Chicago, the Art Institute now has an exhibit of similar photgraphs called "The Concerned Photographer" which runs until June 11. Here is the link:

10:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Well, some of it soars, but some is real kitsch. That saccharin picture of his children walking away from camera hand in hand in (I think) Smith's garden is enough to make you heave - and was when he first made it too. At times he suffered from - among other things - a monumental lack of judgement.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

I located the Hughes biography of Eugene Smith based on your suggestion of some months ago, and it is indeed eye-opening. (It is summarized pretty well in the introduction to the recent "Dream Street.") To ask whether someone operating at Smith's level of obsession and expressive abilities exhibited sufficient "judgement" seems beside the point. Both pictures that you show here have long been burned into my head. What could you be holding back for #1?

An interesting point to think about is that both pictures were posed, obtained with the cooperation of the subjects, planned, lit (Tomoko), and arranged with care to make a strong statement. Smith's Spanish Village images were mostly posed after multiple trials to develop each idea. Knowing a little bit about what the "Walk to Paradise Garden" (a park in Queens) meant to Smith, I understand it as a powerful statement, but i agree that as the leitmotif of the whole Family of Man it gets tiresome.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Eric Hancock said...

Excellent choice.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Motto! said...

I count six people in two pictures.

Also, it's great to be off the prints discussion and back to enjoying some good photographs. I suppose I'm not much of a printer, I do appreciate the value of, and my favourite prints are, ones I made myself in the darkroom, but I suppose for someone that already appreciates the value of printing the whole discussion was a moot point to me.

In any event, looking forward to #1.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I count six people in two pictures."


I've never "not seen" the baby (I understand some people miss it), I just can't count. (s)

Thanks Mike.


12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about the Shadow list? I've found that as interesting or maybe moreso than the T.O.P 10.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Spike said...

I'd like to cut Smith some slack regarding "Walk to Paradise Garden." Take a look at his combat photos taken in the years just before "Walk..." Maybe he needed to do something [sic] sacharrin. Many see a darker ambivalence, as well. And who doesn't photograph his own kids?

I'm a big Smith fan. He gave his photography everything he had. Yeah, his life was messy, and not everything he did succeeded. But I also think he made some of photography's best images and greatest photo essays...ever.

We criticize so easily. I doubt a single person reading this blog has come to close to Smith's effort and commitment and ability. In fact, I'm more than a little fed up with the easy dismissals of Smith, Ansel Adams, and the others on whose shoulders we hope to stand. Certainly, photography is evolving. Tastes change, and we've become over-familiar with famous images. But I think we owe it to photography's greats to try to see them in the context of their own eras, to understand their struggles and their breakthroughs, and maybe to say thanks. Thanks, Gene.

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto (mostly) to what Photo-essayist said.

I have to admit that I grew looking at these two photogs (and their peers) and dreaming of the day when I could take photos like that.

It took me a long time to discover that my "natural" inclination was to narrative and street shots. And then I discovered that, particularly, Lange's photo was kind of staged. IIRC, the kids looking away from the camera and the mother's hand to her face were poses that Lange suggested. That sort of burst my balloon since my sensibility is toward taking it how you find it.

It's a bit of a conundrum. They are still great photos; these photographers are still among the greatest we've had. But I have this lingering feeling that they represent the "artist's statement" while masquerading as "how things really were".

Or maybe I just worry too much. ;-)

6:06 PM  
Blogger chas3stix said...

Great picks,Mike!

10:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I predict that #1 will be the Cartier -Bresson image of the boy carrying two wine bottles.

11:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That should read: ....I grew *up* looking at these two photogs.....

[blast and darn it!]

11:05 PM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

I think the last anonymous is placing his bets right. We've now done Woman, War, The Religious Experience of Nature, and Men (in high places), so what is left? -- Children, and our hope for the future. I expect to see that as #1.

Any one else care to speculate?

3:23 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home