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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Storyteller from the Past

W. Eugene Smith — Content, Content, and Content

Eugene Smith's impact on the world of photography is legendary. For many photographers, he simply defines the ideal of the photo essay and using photography to tell stories. He has been described as "perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay." I can't think of anyone who might replace him at the top of that estimable list. If you are a landscape photographer, being compared to Ansel Adams would be the highest form of compliment for many. If you are a photojournalist, that would be W. Eugene Smith, I suspect.

That said, Smith still does not pass what I call "the airport test." By that I mean this: I challenge you to go to any airport and survey 100 random travelers. (I recommend airports because if they have the means to travel, they are probably educated and have a good knowledge of culture.) Ask your 100 interviewees to name some famous musicians; they will readily name a dozen or more off the top of their heads. Ask them to name some famous novelists, painters, or composers and they will have many authors, painters, and composers they can recite. Then ask them to name famous photographers — and the greatest chances are you will get only one name if any, Ansel Adams. I'd bet big money that none of your airport folks will mention Edward Weston, Richard Avedon, Robert Capa, or anyone else — including W. Eugene Smith. But ask this question at your local gathering of photographers and most of them will get around to W. Eugene Smith pretty high on their list.

But here is where Smith gets to be a more interesting inspiration. Instead of asking folks to name photographers, show them some of these photographers images and ask if they have ever seen them. Show them Smith's image Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath (1971) from his Minimata essey, or one of the images from his famous Life magazine essay, Country Doctor. They may not be as well-known as Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, but they will certain be more recognized than anything by Alfred Stieglitz, Wynn Bullock, Minor White, or Harry Callahan. Herein lies the not-so-obvious inspiration from Eugene Smith.

Let me illustrate it with this question: How do people know of his images? From his gallery exhibitions and sky-high art world prices? Nope. From his museum-quality books and monographs? Nope. Smith's work has been included in gallery exhibitions and publication only long after his images were seen and loved by the public — in magazines. And let's not lose sight of the fact that his most famous images were printed and seen in the 1950 and 1960s in all the stunning quality of 85-line screen half-tones that were the norm in the magazine printing in his day. His images didn't connect with people because of their stunning technical quality, but rather because of their content, content, and content. No one looks at a W. Eugene Smith print and drools over his exquisite tones or command of the Zone System. His images are memorable because they speak to our hearts, give us pause to think, encourage us to open our eyes and even ask questions.

When I say that the best photography is "about life," it's Smith who most often comes to mind. When I find myself chasing the subtleties of Zone 3.4 versus Zone 3.5, or fretting over the fact that my camera may not have enough megapixels, or that the bokeh of my image might be better with a new lens, or some other nitpicky technical issue, I remember Smith and his grainy, gut-wrenching 35mm images.

There is one other way to think about Smith and his career as a photographer that can be a huge lesson for us today. I can illustrate this with an example I've used before from my beloved Powell's books in Portland, Oregon. Whenever I visit Powell's for a personal book fest, I'm reminded that they have two separate and distinct sections I aim for — the art book section and the photography book section. Note that these are two different sections of their store. Who visits the art section? Lots of folks, artists included. Who visits the photography section? That is where photographers go to shop for books. Said another way, the primary audience for most fine art photography today is other photographers — not the general public at large. Here again, Smith shows us the possibilities of breaking out of that insular target marketing. Smith did not make photographs to impress his fellow photographers, even though we photographers are impressed by his work. He used photography to connect to the non-photographic world as his primary audience; the fact that so many photographers love his work is of secondary importance to him.

Yes but — you say — Smith didn't set out to make so-called "fine art photographs." True, but when you see his images in a gallery setting with fine art photography prices, do they seem out of place? Mozart didn't write his music to impress his fellow composers, but it did so while entertaining the masses. It isn't necessary to divide the world into the sophisticates who appreciate our subtleties while ignoring the masses. Smith shows us that this is possible to do both simultaneously. As does, it must be admitted, Ansel Adams, Charles Dickens, Michelangelo. Smith may not be as historically important as others, but for me he has been an inspiration to aim higher than my own peer group.