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.
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.
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.
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…”
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, 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.