Oct 152011

Great Compositions: W. Eugene Smith

The Picture that Changed It All

When in the course of human events…no 

wait thats a different speech.  In our lives

there will be a handful of photographs 

which flip the light switch of creativity.

These “Ah Ha” moments forever change

the way we view picture making.  


WORLD WAR II. The Pacific Campaign. 1943. Ammunition being loaded onto planes aboard the USS Bunker Hill aircraft carrier. © W. Eugene Smith

My Hero is an Alcoholic, Druggie with a Camera

W. Eugene Smith is not the ideal role model.  He was not well mannered, he was abusive to his colleagues and he had a drinking problem.  Consuming ungodly quantities of alcohol could have been listed as his second occupation.  Smith was not the man you would like your daughter to bring home.

Smith uses the diagonal constantly as a compositional tool. His early work in the Pacific can almost be viewed as sketches for later masterpieces. WORLD WAR II. The Pacific Campaign. March 1945. The Battle of Okinawa (Japanese island). US anti-aerial artillery. © W. Eugene Smith

In his lifetime, he was a tyrant around Life Magazine and Magnum Photo.  His expensive research techniques cost Magnum hundreds of thousands of dollars.  At one point he nearly bankrupted the New York office with his Pittsburg project.  His behavior outside of the office was intolerable to many editors.  John Morris, of Life Magazine, maintained a part time job defending Smith’s outburst.  When he was sober, there was “Never a nice man,” one editor recounted.  The trouble was, those periods of sanity were few and far between.  In spite of his behavior, his image captured American life by weaving content and design with the strength of a battleship.

Diagonals, diagonals, diagonals. As you explore the work of W. Eugene Smith it will feel like he whispers this little mantra to you. USA. Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh. 1955. Streetsigns. © W. Eugene Smith

One Picture Changed Everything

Maybe this has happened to you at some point.  You are flipping through a photography book, not paying particular attention to anything.  Then, caught somewhere between your grocery and to-do lists you catch an image from the corner of your eye.  In the haste of page turning you stop.  Lifting the page in reverse an image calls out to you, “I AM THE PICTURE YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR…”

“Boys Running Into the Surf at Lake Tanganyika” was the picture that changed the photography game for Henri Cartier-Bresson. © Martin Munkacsi/Ullstein Bild

Ask any photographer, if there is an image that changed his expectations on photography.  Everyone has a few of these pictures, but they do not always admit it.  Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about the boys running on the surf by Martin Munkacsi and how this showed him what was really possible with a 35mm camera.

For me, Smith brought a new level of patience to war photography that often focuses on design to bring the content to life. WORLD WAR II. The Pacific Campaign. 27 June 1944. Battle of Saipan Island. US Marines. © W. Eugene Smith

For me, one of those great pictures was by W. Eugene Smith.  At the time, I did not know Smith’s work.  I never heard about his posthumous foundation or his volatile life.  The only thing I knew about W. Eugene Smith was he took a picture of men at war like no one I had ever seen before.

What Stood Out

Peter Van Agtmael said at his recent Magnum talk that war photography can be a matter of “Stepping in front of some serious s*** and pushing the shutter till it clicks.”  In many cases this is true.  The events of war can be so shocking and graphic that the photographs do not need to be “good” images by any standards.  The simple fact that the scene was registered on film is enough.  But if a photographer can combine a sense of design with the content of war the effect will be staggering.

Even Griffiths can be seen here using a single diagonal to compose this haunting image. VIETNAM. Human skulls were a favorite souvenir among the soldiers and their officers. The commander of this unit, Colonel (now Brigadier General) George S. Patton III, carried around a skull at his farewell party. 1967 © Philip Jones Griffiths

Like many street photographers, I enjoy the war photography of men like Robert Capa, David Duncan Douglas, David Seymour, Eddie Adams, and Philip Jones-Griffiths.  These men lived along side the soldiers they documented and earned their respect.  They are, in many ways, some of the best war photographers in history.  So who was W. Eugene Smith?  The name sounded like a character from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but I had never heard of him.

Here we can see the image is composed on a major diagonal. © W. Eugene Smith

Men and Bullets

Smith took a picture of two men loading a machine gun belt on the deck of an aircraft carrier.  They are mid-stride as the belt of bullets are being prepared for a battle.  The scene is simple.  It is a picture of two men at work.  There is no fancy lighting, in fact it is basically back lit.  But the image has such a powerful design that it electrifies the scene in a way that only a photograph could capture.

In my weekly reviews images with Myron (Barnstone) he reminds me, “When we take pictures we paint with a broad brush.  We can’t control the entire scene, but we are looking for a perfect image and you can find it.  You don’t want anything distracting from your subject, otherwise the picture is ruined.”

The strength of the diagonal is reinforced by using the reciprocal diagonal. For those of you who are just coming into the conversation, the reciprocal intersects the major diagonal at 90 degrees. W. Eugene Smith

In the past I asked him to explain the meaning of this statement.  He reminds me that a camera registers the instant when the design of a random scene gels into a beautiful composition.  Since we can’t arrange the background we need to move our feet to eliminate any distracting elements. If we can’t, then we do not have a picture.


We see that Smith does “paint with a broad brush.” He waits for the design to come together and then “bang” he’s got a picture. © W. Eugene Smith

That instant, when we bang the shutter, is the moment when a series of unrehearsed actions organize themselves into a composition without much interference.  Now the main obstacle, is the players in the picture are not working for our image.  It is the job of the photographer to spot that moment, when the picture takes place.  If we do it properly, the effect is so strong that our flat 2-dimensional print, will pop off the surface of the paper and truly convey a 3 or 4-dimensional experience to a view.  It is important to notice that the image is designed based off of the shape of the action, not the quality of the action.  Many photographers make the mistake of waiting for a facial expression to “make an image.”  But when you study Cartier-Bresson or Smith it becomes evident that a great deal of their images are dependent on the design of the action rather than a facial expression. If you can manage a facial expression at the same time, that is great, though it is not necessary.

WORLD WAR II. The Pacific Campaign. 1943. From Pollywog to Shellback. A crew member being hosed aboard the USS Bunker Hill aircraft carrier (the ritual initiation when crossing the equator for the first time). © W. Eugene Smith

The Diagonal Comes Alive

Smith’s “Bullet Men” as I will call them, came alive to me because it was a picture that set aside the shock of war and focused on the photograph.  It is not taken during a dramatic scene like the Battle at Midway.  The picture was taken before a single gun was fired.  This was one of the early images that made me see how powerful role of a diagonal in a photograph.

WORLD WAR II. The Pacific Campaign. 1943. Ammunition being loaded onto planes aboard the USS Bunker Hill aircraft carrier. © W. Eugene Smith

If Smith stood upright and looked down at these men, the picture would have died.  The diagonal would have been a wimpy form set against a medium background.  He chose to shoot this image from underneath the men.  It allows for a single diagonal to sweep through the image and carry the weight of the belt as it is loaded for battle.

The content is fairly boring, in comparison, to a war scene.  There are two guys who probably repeated this gesture one hundred time in an hour as they loaded and unloaded bullets.  As subjects, they probably thought nothing of this picture, because they were fulfilling the boring task of work.  If we spent the afternoon watching someone load bullets we would probably fall asleep.  Work can be a boring activity to watch.  However, Smith finds the 500th of a second that defines an entire moment and speaks to the war effort.  All of this is accomplished by focusing on his subject and distilling the composition down a a few limited direction.  The limited number of directions that a photographer uses in an image are called the gamut.  A good picture will only have a handful of major directions.  Otherwise, as Myron always reminds me, “Your picture will look like the bottom of a birdcage.”

The diagonal here is very obvious. Later in his career he would soften the compositions. WORLD WAR II. The Pacific Campaign. January 1945. USA. Hawaii. Pearl Harbour. US Army base. © W. Eugene Smith

The Diagonal, Your New Best Friend

Have you ever taken a picture of something which was very powerful, but the picture feel calm?  Why is it that a forceful scene will feel still once we bang the shutter?  The reason has nothing to do with the content of the picture, it has to do with the design.  Horizontals and verticals do not posses the raw power of a diagonal composition.  Have  a look at the pictures below.  They contain thousands or even millions of pounds of hydraulic force, but the picture reads like a lullaby.  Smith’s image does not have any guns firing, bombs exploding, or people being blown to pieces.  But that picture is screaming with life.  It has a vitality and energy that tapped into the American war machine because he composed the picture on a diagonal, arranged the forms to make proper use of the negative, and let the subject (the bullets) be the focus without any distracting elements.

In spite of Niagra Falls tremendous strength, the image retains a calm feeling due to the strong horizontal composition. Falls 26. Alec Soth

This is actually a great image from Clifford Ross’s series taken of crashing waves during a hurricane. But in spite of the stormy conditions, the picture is almost meditative. © Clifford Ross

But most importantly it taught me to watch my diagonals.


Smith uses diagonals to compose a large number of his images.  The diagonal can be used quite obviously or it can be subtle.  The mark of the great masters in painting was their ability to organize everything on the golden section, while giving the image a natural look.  This way they never revealed the techniques of their composition.  Smith works in the same manner.  His images from the Pacific were made early on in his career.  The diagonal tends to be in our face.  As he progressed and moved into new bodies of work, he developed a complexity, which retained the strength of the diagonal but made the gesture more quiet.

Again we see an early image, from World War II with a very dominant diagonal composition. USA. World War II. 1943. Woman active in the war effort. © W. Eugene Smith

Now does this mean that any image composed on the diagonal will be a masterpiece?  Hardly.  It is just the first step in the process.  When we educate ourselves on the nature of an image there will be a few images which were critical to our development.  They may posses one or two lessons, which we will carry into our later work.  But those lessons will forever change the way we conceive an image.  Then as we begin to incorporate the diagonal into our work, we begin to see it instantly.  When we really get a handle on it, we may watch a scene develop, in anticipation of the diagonal.  Then, once the diagonal happens “BANG” thats our shot.

The diagonal is still present in later work, but it is used with greater finesse. The design is hidden underneath the subject’s expression. USA. North Carolina. 1947. Member of a community living in the Blue Ridge Mountains and which is devoted to folk music and folk singing, being interviewed by Folk musicologist and singer Susan REED. © W. Eugene Smith

Before that moment can happen, we need to first be aware of the how a diagonal works, secondly understand its importance to the picture, and thirdly take a bunch of rotten pictures where the diagonal is misused until we get it right.  No one picks a a violin and plays like Jascha Heifetz.  We sounds like chaos at first.  Then we start with the scales and practice the basics for hundreds of hours.  Eventually we reach a point where we can play with our eyes closed and do not even need to read the music.  Only through repeated practice can our photography reach an intuitive level.  Until then we are just making noise.


  23 Responses to “Great Compositions: W. Eugene Smith”

  1. Adam,
    As you press the importance of design and geometry you are going to start a new movement in photography; the rebirth of classical instruction. Like many others, I had always framed my work in thirds. Because of you in depth analysis of great photographers and classical design I find it easier to now think in terms of the diagonal. I work harder for the image and I am patiently training myself for the “decisive moment”. Thank you and keep the info flowing. We are starving for the next morsel.

    • Thanks JT,

      Thirds is a good start, but unfortunately for many it is also the end of composition. But that’s just lazy photo magazine editors at work. Composition is a wonderfully complex world with infinite options. All of the food we need is inside our museums.

      When you finally see what the masters were doing its an amazing realization. It changed everything for me. Step one, find the diagonal.


  2. These are my favorite things to read on the web. I’ve always attempted to base my photography on a strong sense of design. I’ve started using this approach of looking for diagonals whenever I look at art or photography now. I’m also very interested in those Barnstone DVDs now.

    Thanks for the effort you put into these pieces.

    • The Barnstone DVDs are extremely insightful. If anyone is interested I can sell you mine for a reduced price. They’re very good, but I know myself – I’ll never watch them again. I rarely watch anything twice. roblarosa[at]yahoo[dot]com if interested.

    • Hey Kyle,

      So happy to hear these articles are your favorite things to read. But more importantly, I hope it is of some use to your photography.

      In addition, Myron’s DVDs are outstanding. They will give you a great foundation, one you probably did not know was missing. After watching the series, your visual vocabulary will take on a new shape.

      Personally, I never minded paying full price for something of value, but if not, it sounds like Rob is offering a good deal on the DVDs.



  3. Hi Adam! Been reading your posts for the past week or so now, and I should say that these have added, erm, a new dimension to the way I see photographs. Hoping to read more of your posts here, and thanks for sharing your expertise in this area!

    • Hey Cedric,

      Haha new dimension, well played. Yes, within that tiny 35mm frame there exists a world of possibilities. Happy to share the lessons that helped me along the way.

      There will be more posts coming. Let me know how they work out for you. I like the entries to be an exchange instead of a lecture. You guys really complete the process.


  4. Another great post! Thank you Adam. Diagonal composition has really changed my way of shooting as well as my way of seeing the world.

    • Hey Antony,

      Happy to have given you a new way of shooting. Down the road I will need to do an article about a major shift that happened with the diagonal in the late 1500′s. It really blew things wide open.

      Its funny to think that the images we make are conversant with an open discussion which is over five hundred years old.


  5. It’s a given that I love these posts, just wanted to share my enthusiasm with the other readers.

    To the lurkers who don’t post, pipe up every now and then and let Adam know if it’s helpful for you. I’d love to have a forum on here with like minded photographers talking purely about composition and design – wouldn’t that be a fresh place on the internet? Imagine the joy of replacing “Nikon vs Canon” with a constructive “Bresson vs Smith” rant! ;-)

    • Hey DW,

      Its really fantastic to hear all of your positive feedback. Not everything an artist puts into the world is well received. But I am very impressed at the level of interest that exists from everyone.

      Haha, lurkers…i just learned what that word meant. But yes, its good to open the discussion. Unlike the digital vs analog or nikon vs canon discussions, this is more of a studio or a lab. We experiment, discuss, refine, and study the masters to see what we can learn from their images.

      The images may be paint, pencil or negative. Either way, they did us the great service of leaving a visual record. The least we can do is give them a thorough look to understand why they move us so deeply.

      We will see how the community of like minded photographers emerge. The more feedback the greater the chance of a forum. This way its organic. Looking forward to hearing peoples thoughts in person during the workshop. Too bad you wont be in NYC, would love to have you here. And for those of you who might be around, come on down:



  6. If you were to package some of this instruction into a PDF book I would definitely buy it. Thanks for the work you out into the site.

    • Thanks Cody,

      At the moment I have no consolidated my thoughts into a book. Maybe some time in the near future. For now the only “total package option” would be private classes or a one time review. They added bonus, is that you can pick my brain about all the questions you have.

      Or…one other thought, if you are in the area join me at the Halloween Workshop. It will be a two day course on all of these compositional ideas. Maybe I will see you soon.

      Very happy to hear you are enjoying the articles. There are more on deck.


  7. Thank you for this insight into composition. I am always trying to learn more about photography as I am relatively new to it. I learned about your site recently by following you on Google + and Eric Kim. I will be paying attention to your site for any more of these articles and interesting content.

    Best Rgds-Alain

    • Hey Alain,

      Happy to have you aboard. Welcome to the wonderful world of design. If you have any questions feel free to let me know.

      The goal of these articles is to give you something that can be applied to your work, so photography can be a more dynamic and engaging practice.

      Thanks to Eric too!


  8. Humbled by Diagonals

    Adam, I am embarassed to say that I looked at all of my film photography for 2011 and there are no diagonals of mention.

    My great nephew is 23 and took a photo for me a few months ago. He just tilted the camera and took a photo of my sister and I. Amazing photo. I asked him, why tilt the camera? He said: I just felt like it.

    “Mikey” as we call him has more artistic talent in his little toe than I can imagine. He framed a diagonal just because he felt like it.

    Thanks for the blog post. I’m doing my best to see the diagonals in my photography from here onward.

    • Hey Richard,

      Good photography takes training and practice. Many photographers head out, with little training to take pictures. It forces them to re-invent the wheel, instead of
      learning the practices of earlier Masters and move forward.

      Over and over again, I encounter photographers who are working in a similar style to someone who came before them. But….they have never seen the work nor do
      the understand the design. Cartier-Bresson even makes a comment in the DVD Decisive Moment that there are no new ideas, only new arrangements if ideas. Or
      as Myron often says to his students, “We are certainly not the first person to take a portrait. You would be best to understand how artists tackle this problem.”

      We only have one lifetime to get it right. My philosophy has always been to find a good mentor and learn, ask, and practice with guidance. The young photographers
      at Magnum all had critiques with Cartier-Bresson. He taught everyone to flip their contact sheets upside down. The goal was to discover the underlying geometry in
      an image.

      Some people, like Mikey, might be artistically inclined, but true mastery takes time. Just remember what Michelangelo said, “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all”.

      Good luck with the diagonals and if you have more questions (which is inevitable) feel free to write me.


  9. Adam,

    Just found your blog and started to read through some of your older posts. Very refreshing to find somebody going back to the core values of composition etc. in the making of great photographs. It happens that Eugene Smith is one of my absolute favourite photographers and I really enjoyed your different critique in relation to his use of diagonals in some of his war-time images. Now I will have to go back and look again at all his classic work – Pittsburgh, Minamata, Country Doctor, Spanish Village etc. – to look for his compositional ‘tricks’ (and I mean that in a good way!) Keep up the good work.

    Best wishes

    • Hey Colin,

      Happy to hear you are enjoying the site. I am going to do an article this week on Eugene Smith and Mary Cassat. It will be of particular interest to you.

      Smith is excellent. One of the finest photographers of the 20th Century. He used the diagonal well and developed some useful applications. You should enjoy
      going through his archives after the article.


      • I will look forward to reading the article. I think Smith’s ability to not only produce stunning simple images but to also weave them into a bigger story is what made him special. I wish more of his work was still in print as there is a lot he could teach modern photographers. Mind you, his erratic behaviour would not be tolerated in theses politically correct times!


        • Colin,

          I agree with you entirely. Smith is one of the few 20th century photographers that really tackled long term projects in an interesting way. Too bad he was such a pain in the ass. It has probably resulted in him being marginalized, in comparison to other photographers.

          Hope you enjoy the articles. I do plan to write more on Smith in the coming months.


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