My Story: Isn’t that sweet! Those two kids and that wonderful light. All is joy and hope at an age when everything is new! No wonder that this photo was the final shot, the coda to Steichen’s Family of Man exhibit.
The Facts: Eugene Smith was an ordinary photographer before the Second World War, handling routine assignments for Life, Newsweek, and Parade magazines. After Pearl Harbor, he tried to join Steichen’s Navy photography unit but was refused because of his small size and an injury that hampered his movement. Smith persevered and managed to contract with Ziff-Davis Publishing and was assigned to the Pacific. He photographed combat at Rabaul, Tarawa, and in the Marianas. After his contract with Ziff-Davis ended, he got Life magazine to send him back in time for the fighting on Saipan, Guam, and Okinawa.
Smith’s father had committed suicide in 1936 and…:
…the sensationalism of the local newspaper’s coverage of his death caused Smith to bitterly hate dishonest journalism. Smith almost decided to quit journalism, but a friend convinced him that, “honesty is not of a profession, but within the individual and what he brings to his work.”
This passion for honesty caused him to despise sentimental depictions of war’s glory (such as the Iwo Jima flag-raising); Smith was determined to show the gritty realities. These included dying soldiers caked in mud, and civilians caught up by chaos and fear.
Saipan, 1944. Smith: “They burst out through the opening, stumbling, dazed, choking, and nearly blinded by the fumes, trying to lurch and claw their way past the still warm body of a man, and another of a boy. Trying for an escape when there was no escape.”
The Pacific war was brutal and nasty, and the battle for Okinawa was a horror show. This was the bloodiest battle Americans had fought since the Civil War and it included mass suicides by civilians who feared capture. Smith photographed it all. He hated what he saw but:
If I could photograph powerfully enough… If my photographs could grab the viewer by the heart, making the enormity of the terribleness of war lodge heavilly, they might also prod the conscience and cause him to think. [Smith]
Okinawa, 1944. Smith: “In his first action he had been quickly hit and was now lying on a stretcher… The blood had sprayed the length of him and behind him as he ran… it now was mixed with the muck of Okinawa from his boots to the head wound from which it had come… As he lay there he touched the tips of his fingers together… The last I saw of him…two men running and creeping with the recent replacement between them… I think the boy on the stretcher was already dead.”
While photographing the fighting, a shell hit near Smith and shrapnel tore through his body. One shell fragment passed through his left hand that was focusing the camera, and then ripped through his face, shattering parts of his skull. Smith was shipped back to the US and spent two years having metal and bone splinters removed from his face. His skull was reconstructed and his hand rebuilt, but fluid constantly dripped from his nose and he could not fully close his hand. For a time Smith thought he would never use a camera again.
Two years after he was wounded, Smith determined to make an effort to create a photograph. He decided to photograph his youngest children who were too small to recognize the struggle he was undertaking. He got his wife and oldest child out of the house, not wishing witnesses to what might be a failure. Once they were gone, Smith faced his first trial: he had to load the camera with film.
I struggled to tear open the cardboard container, and then struggled to open the camera and insert the roll. This, at the beginning, almost proved my undoing, for as I fought to give my mangled left hand a strength and a control it did not have…the pain and the nerves and the fear and the inadequate fumbling left me trembling, sweating, and coldly hunched in cramp. [Smith]
Now, with the camera loaded, he and the children went outside. It was a lovely day and the children scampered about as Smith walked behind, trying to work the focus with his ruined hand. Whenever he brought the camera to his face, nasal fluid splashed on the glass viewfinder and obscured his vision. He struggled along, forcing his hand to work and swallowing the vile, bitter, seepage from his wounds.
Then Smith saw the opening in the trees, full of light, and thought his children might walk into it. It was the shot he hoped for.
I became acutely sensitive to the lines forming the scene and to the bright shower of light pouring into the opening and spilling down the path toward us. Pat saw something in the clearing, he grasped Juanita by the hand and they hurried forward. [Smith]
Smith struggled with the camera, pain ripping from his hand through his arm as he focused, sucking down the “ugly tasting serum”, gauging the light and composition, and trying to determine exactly when to press the shutter to make up for his slowed reaction time. He squeezed off a shot and knew that he had something. He forced himself to take another. Then he turned away from the children so that they would not see him weep.
Life photographs by Smith
a biographical essay
the lengthy piece by Smith excerpted above
Photography Made Difficult, American Masters documentary