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Between the Shirt and the Skin 

click to enlarge W. Eugene Smith, Three Generations of Welsh Miners, 1950.
  • W. Eugene Smith, Three Generations of Welsh Miners, 1950.

Despite much evidence to the contrary, photographs are assumed to be authentic records of a moment. If you combine this fact with the ethics of truth-telling that surround journalism, photography might be considered a more powerful medium than the text that accompanies it in newspaper and magazine articles.

The terms surrounding photography intimate its brawn: The photographer “captures” someone in a photograph or “shoots” a subject. Even the most common phrase, “to take a picture,” implies stealing something from the world and encasing it infinitely (or at least archivally) in two dimensions as a kidnapped souvenir of reality. The contradictions surrounding the subjective nature of any art and the alleged objectivity of the camera have been discussed to the point of exhaustion. When speaking about photojournalist W. Eugene Smith (1918—1978), however, it is vital to touch on these themes. For Smith, truth was as much a medium as the black-and-white negatives (there are 100,000 in the Smith archive) and gelatin silver prints he produced.

Smith, who began photographing for the local paper in Wichita, Kansas, at 16, was outspoken about the complexity and gravity of these issues as early as the 1940s, when he worked for magazines such as Colliers, Life, and Parade. However, he understood that truth and objectivity are not the same. In 1971, Smith stated: “The journalistic photographer can have no other than a personal approach and it is impossible for him to be completely objective. Honest, yes. Objective, no.” His colleague, famed photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, indicated that this honesty was visible: “I feel Gene’s photographs reflect a great turmoil. They are captured between the shirt and the skin; this camera, anchored in the heart, moves me by its integrity.” Smith’s career walked the high wire between art and truth, fact and feeling.

Now, 25 black-and-white prints by W. Eugene Smith are on permanent view at Dutchess Community College. The prints were donated by Smith’s son, K. Patrick Smith, and given in memory of the photographer’s first wife, Carmen Smith Wood, a graduate of the school’s nursing program. Smith is known for his unique, poetic approach to the photographic essay, wherein pictures are ordered intuitively to convey the essence of a story. Images from several important essays are represented in this gift. Four pictures from his two-year project documenting the city of Pittsburgh (1955—56), five from the Spanish Village essay (1951), and single images from the popular “Nurse Midwife” (1951) series and the Man of Mercy essay (1954) are among the works hanging in DCC’s Martha Reifler Myers Gallery. There are not enough images from each to fully convey Smith’s pioneering approach to the photographic essay, but many of his most iconic images are there, including The Spinner, Three Generations of Welsh Miners, and The Wake.

At the beginning of an article on Minor White (another photographer from Smith’s generation) in the New York Times, famed Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski wrote: “If people who think ever think about photography, they probably think.” Eugene Smith was a person who thought, and who constantly thought about photography. The works at Dutchess Community College can be seen as a potent completion of Szarkowski’s provocative introduction writ in images—one that emerges from more than 40 years of dedication to rethinking the medium of photojournalism.

Twenty-five photographs by W. Eugene Smith are now on permanent display in the Martha Reifler Myers Gallery in Hudson Hall at Dutchess Community College, 53 Pendell Road, Poughkeepsie. (845) 431-8000; www.sunydutchess.edu.

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