When great art makes you feel bad

A guide to his exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum.

W. Eugene Smith, the great Life photographer, and I have some things in common.    That realization smacked me hard a few weeks ago after viewing an exhibit of his work at the Phoenix Art Museum.  I began to make comparisons.

Smith was born in Wichita, 60 miles from my hometown in southern Kansas.  For a short time he  was employed at the morning Eagle, upwind from where I later worked at Wichita’s hopeless afternoon paper, the Beacon.  And in his later years, he resided in Tucson, even died there a few months before I arrived 120 miles up the road in Phoenix.  That’s about where the commonality ends.

What made Smith so great, or so it seems to me, was this profound discovery at an early age that only a few experience.  He found his calling.  And not only that.  He believed in it without much doubt.  And he had the courage and confidence to stay at the wheel, to continue learning his craft and in the process weathering whatever storms and distractions arose.  Call it dedication, call it genius, a miracle of birth, I don’t know.  But I’d guess he met someone along the line who believed in him.

This obsession with the camera finally found its way into Smith’s forte, the photo essay.

Essays in black and white like “Nurse Midwife,” which features a midwife, Maude Callen, a black woman in South Carolina in 1951.   Smith catches near-perfectly the essence of her life as a health-care provider among poor blacks in the racist South.   Certainly not a subject in The Fifties guaranteed to produce fame.

Examples of Smith’s “Nurse Midwife.”

The museum’s exhibit also displayed, “Country Doctor,”  which depicted in 1948 a weary Dr. Ernest Ceriani visiting the ill around the small Colorado mountain town of Kremmling.  I read somewhere this essay was “the first photo story of the modern photojournalism age.”

Smith traveled to Africa to shoot “Man of Mercy,” a study of humanitarian work done there by Dr. Albert Schwietzer, a man he apparently did not like.  Also exhibited was “Minamata,”  a searing look in 1971 at the devastation brought to a small Japanese town by mercury poisoning caused by chemicals released from a nearby plant.  Not shown from that essay was what is said to be Smith’s most noted single photograph, “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.”   Tomoko, a deformed victim of the poisoning, is seen naked, cradled by her mother in a bath.  The photo was withdrawn from public viewing at the request of Tomoko’s family.

As I walked slowly through the exhibit room of Smith’s greatest works, a tinge of sadness seeped in.

I thought of myself and how I had somehow missed the boat to fulfillment in what I do which is to write.

I thought of how we grew up during different eras in the similar uninspiring flatlands of Kansas, with visions of a world beyond silos and fields of wheat.  I too had a serious streak.  I too felt the injustices of what I saw taking place daily.  And yet Smith reached a pinnacle I never came close to matching in a similar field, print journalism.  Was it pure talent?  Whispers from the gods?

At some point, early on, our paths took a dramatic split.  I had wanted to do great things.  I thought, for instance, I could be a different kind of sports writer, that I could uncover the ills that plague sports to this very day.  But I failed.

Though I quit two jobs on principle, just as Smith had done with Life over anger with the Schweitzer photos, my issues were too personal, too egotistic.  Until it was too late, I didn’t understand man can’t have it all.  I made compromises along the way.  Not as many as some.  But compromises none the less.

Where Smith was focused, I was not.   And the recognition of what might have been struck me in a deep and hurtful way.

If I have worthy advice to any young person it is this.  Forget the money, forget the fame.  Find something you enjoy doing and stick with it.  Give it your best shot and let life’s chips fall where they may.

For me, I was, at least from the my early years on, always down-road and down-wind from Mr. Smith.


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