Through his photo essays for Life and other weekly news magazines, W. Eugene Smith put a human face on war, the British working class, industrial pollution and dozens of other topical events of the day. He photographed the US offense against Japan in the islands of the Pacific in 1945, capturing both the Marines and Japanese prisoners of war in his lens – at great risk to himself; he was injured at Okinawa by an exploding shell. Recovering, he went on to photograph the general election in the UK in 1950, alienating some of his editors, who were against the Labour government, by focusing on the exploited, including some Welsh miners.
Most famously, perhaps, in 1975 he seared the devastating impact of mercury poisoning of the water supply from a factory in Minamata, Japan on local children into the consciousness of millions of Americans; I remember turning the pages of Life and inwardly gasping at the picture of a horribly deformed girl being bathed by her mother: a photograph that elevated the subject to a universal image of pathos. Smith also photographed and recorded more than 300 jazz musicians playing in a Manhattan loft in the late 1950s and early 1960s and embarked on a massive documentation of the City of Pittsburgh.
As it turns out, a significant collection of Smith’s work – purportedly the world’s single largest permanent exhibition of his photographs that’s open to the public – is located right here in the mid-Hudson Valley. From 1995 through 2008, Smith’s son K. Patrick Smith donated 25 of his father’s photographs to Dutchess County Community College in honor of his mother, Carmen Smith Wood, who was Smith’s first wife and a 1979 graduate of DCCC’s Nursing program. The works are displayed in the Martha Reifler Myers Gallery in Hudson Hall, just outside the library, on the main campus in Poughkeepsie.
“It’s a beautiful collection and very poignant,” said Judi Stokes, the college’s director of communications and public relations. “Most of the photographs tell the stories of people, and they’re really gripping.” All in black-and-white, the photographs represent a variety of subjects and time periods. They include shots of a Spanish village from the early 1950s, depicting a wake and a group of aproned women and children relaxing in a courtyard; a guitar player in an undershirt accompanied by several soldiers from World War II; Ed Sullivan on stage hosting his iconic 1960s TV show; Welsh miners; and a scene from the original 1949 stage production of South Pacific depicting performers Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. In the collection is also a striking portrait of Smith, in safari helmet and camera in hand, taken in Africa in the 1950s. Shots of Pittsburgh and a portrait of theologian Albert Schweitzer, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his ethical philosophy, which he called Reverence for Life, are also included.
Born in Wichita, Kansas in 1918, W. Eugene Smith began working as a professional photographer when he was still a teenager. His work was known mainly through his photographs for Newsweek, Life, Colliers and The New York Times. Besides Pittsburgh, he also photographed New York City extensively in two independent projects that he financed himself. He died in 1978.
The W. Eugene Smith collection is a popular destination on the SUNY-Dutchess campus, according to Stokes. “The students walk through the gallery on their way to the library and really enjoy it,” she said, noting that the exhibit is also a valuable teaching tool for the Photography classes offered by the Communications Department.
After a visit to the collection, don’t miss the show one floor up, titled “Denunciation,” of the war-inspired paintings of David Lax, a professor of Art at DCCC who was a founder/member of the college’s art department. Stationed with the US Army in Europe during World War II as an artist for Yank magazine, Lax witnessed the concentration camps and other atrocities, distilling his impressions into dark, El Grecolike paintings of archetypal figures. DCCC also hosts six shows a year in another gallery of work by students and visiting artists.
Eugene Smith permanent collection, Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., free, Martha Reifler Myers Gallery, Hudson Hall, Dutchess County Community College, 53 Pendell Road, Poughkeepsie.