Smith’s iconic photo The Walk to Paradise Garden is on view at the Tel Aviv Museum exhibit

W. Eugene Smith, a pioneer of humanistic photojournalism, was one of the giants of 20th century photography. Tel Aviv Museum owns a large collection of Smith photographs.  Forty of them spanning his long career are now on exhibit in a one-man show at the museum - the first comprehensive exhibit of his work in Israel in almost 30 years.

Born in 1918 in Kansas, Smith first famously brought the Second World War home to the United States while he served embedded with the US Army in the Pacific theater; his photograph of fighter bombers swooping over Bunker Hill in 1943 is on display. He was severely wounded by mortar fire in Okinawa in 1945 and was sent home to recuperate with his family.

The first photograph he took when able to resume work a year later portrays an idyllic picture of his two small children walking hand in hand in the woods near his home. Smith felt he “needed to make a photograph that was the opposite of war”. That iconic shot, The Walk to Paradise Garden, is also on view in the Tel Aviv Museum exhibit.

The show features many of the pictures he shot for the photojournalism essays he published in Life Magazine. Smith would establish himself on location and try to integrate himself into the lives of his subjects so as to portray them from the inside out, and not as an outsider looking in.

After the war, he traveled to live in a remote rural village in Spain unreached by electricity and seemingly untouched by the modern world, although even there  the long shadow of Franco’s iron regime touched lives, as can be seen in the somber photo of the severe faces of the Civil Guardsmen. The respect he showed for his subjects enabled Smith to be welcomed into the peasants’ most intimate moments, as seen in the photo of a family gathered reverently around an old man laid out in death.

Smith’s series of the angelic work of a nurse-midwife in poverty stricken South Carolina in 1951 draws the picture of a woman dedicated to her patients with head and heart. Smith was drawn to health-givers to the underprivileged. In 1954 he brought the work of Albert Schweitzer in his African jungle hospital to the attention of millions with his photo essay A Man of Mercy. The exhibit continuously screens a documentary film narrated by Smith in which he describes Schweitzer’s work, heroism and personality. It includes photographs of Schweitzer’s leper hospital wing and of Schweitzer playing his beloved Bach on the organ he brought with him to Africa.

His last big project exposed nerve damage to local inhabitants caused by the dumping of chemicals in Minamata, Japan. Smith lived in the town from 1971 to 1973.  On display is his heart-wrenching photograph of the twisted limbs of a paralyzed victim, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath. Shortly after the photograph was taken, Smith was attacked by employees of the chemical company, resulting in partial blindness.

Smith’s work was not limited to human suffering. On view are part of his series on jazz musicians and his dramatic documentation of the industrial life of the steel city of Pittsburgh.

The photography collection at Tel Aviv Museum was started in 1977 by Israeli photographer Micha Bar Am. Donors have helped enlarge the collection to include representative works by international greats Henri Cartier Bresson, Frank Capa, Weegee, and Soviet photographers, as well as rising stars of Israeli photography like Adi Nes, Pavel Wolberg and Barry Frydlender. The museum regularly mounts photography shows of traditional and cutting edge works in its large dedicated photography gallery.

In addition, the art library at the museum has a large selection of photography albums. Its collection comprises 52 works about W. Eugene Smith.

The library holds several copies of the catalogue of the legendary photography show, The Family of Man, exhibited in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art and curated by photography master Edward Steichen. Dedicated to showing themes common to human beings in every culture through subjects like birth, parenthood, work, death and friendship, that exhibit included over 500 photos by 268 photographers from 68 countries. Several were by Smith. Seen by millions, the show toured internationally and is now on permanent display in Luxembourg. 

The Family of Man, a catalogue reproducing the entire exhibit, has been in continuous print since 1955 and has sold over four million copies. The last photograph of the volume, featured solo on a full page, is the photo of W. Eugene Smith’s two children holding hands and walking towards the future.

W. Eugene Smith A Selection of Works from the Museum Collection is on view until October 29, 2016.

 

 

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Talya Dunleavy
2017-04-06
The picture at the top of the article made my heart skip a beat.When I was a small child, my parents had a copy of the book The Family of man. That book has touched me deeply as a child and I remember the photographs so vividly. I was only 5 but I remember the cover and could draw it from memory! When I was in my 50s I looked for a copy of the book and found one, which I now treasure. Eugene Smith's photography leaves me awestruck. Thank you for this excellent article.

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Helen Schary Motro

Helen Schary Motro is author of Maneuvering between the Headlines: An American Lives through the Intifada (Other Press, New York 2005). An American lawyer living in Israel for 20 years with her fam...
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