T.O.P. Ten: Number 2
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.
Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON
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
5. The Land
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."