The manipulated image- W. Eugene Smith, Albert Schweitzer and Life Magazine

w-eugene-smith

I read with interest project 5 in the course materials that reflected upon image manipulation both past and present. I had been reading about and looking at the work of W.Eugene Smith when I came across the controversy that led him to resign as a photographer for the magazine ‘Life’. The story seemed to me to resonate with the themes being explored in this part of the course so I thought I would add some notes on the issue to my blog.

W. Eugene Smith is to me an iconic 20th century photographers who is one of the progenitors of the photo essays and to my eye a master of  work in low light. He produced a number of outstanding bodies of work ranging from his very visceral war photography while embedded with american troops fighting the japans in World War II, (during which time he was injured) to his classic photo  photo essays “Country Doctor” (1948) and “Nurse Midwife” (1951). His three year long study of Pittsburg (1955–1958) is an in depth study of the city and  record and his Jazz Loft Project (1957 to 1965) is an entrancing view of the Jazz set in New York City. His images of the Japans city of Minamata provide a record, indeed a whistleblowing exposure of the toxic poising of a generation.

 

It is his 1954  photo essay for Life magazine ‘Man of Mercy’, a study of the great Albert Schweitzer, that raises issues about truth and manipulation. Smith parted company with Life Magazine following a dispute about the image below.

W. Eugene Smith

© W. Eugene Smith

Smith manipulated this image by adding the silhouette of the saw and hand in the bottom right of the photograph. He felt the addition of these elements added to the ‘greater truth’ about Schweitzer and this justified the addition. Life’s policy forbad such an addition and Smith and the magazine parted company.

The ‘greater truth’ referred to by Smith was  the fact that Schweitzer had personally overseen the building of the hospital in which he worked. Smith obviously felt that the addition enhanced the image in the it added a key element to the narrative. It was however seen by Life’s editors as a fake image. 

I am genuinely torn by the rights and wrongs of Smith’s image manipulation and by modern standards of photoshopping this seems minor. But the truth is the image was faked, whatever the motive. It raises for me questions about where the boundaries lie in the truth of an image. When we enhance the colour, sharpen the foreground or darken the sky, are we not guilty of the same act as Smith? I suspect this is a theme to which I will return!

References

Cosgrove, B. (2014) Behind the Picture: Albert Schweitzer in Africa, found at:  www.time.com/3878732/albert-schweitzer-in-africa-behind-the-picture (Accessed May 2016)

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