The images that focus our past
W. EUGENE SMITH: PHOTOGRAPHS 1934-1975
By W. Eugene Smith
Harry N. Abrams
352 pp., $75
By Margaret Bourke-White
Little, Brown & Co.
160 pp., $65
The entire history of American photojournalism occurred in the 20th century, so it's appropriate, and probably inevitable, that we'll soon be offered nominations for the top 10 shooters of the century. Two candidates should be on everyone's list: W. Eugene Smith and Margaret Bourke-White.
Both made their mark in midcentury, before the mass-market rise of color photography; both were associated with Life magazine, the period's premier vehicle for photography; and both have new books devoted to their work.
While working for Life magazine in the 1940s and '50s, Smith became a legendary photojournalist, both for his powerful images and his dedication to his profession. He twice quit the magazine over issues of integrity and control. He was recognized as the finest practitioner of the photo essay. He helped establish photographers as journalists and not just technicians who operated under the direction of editors. He was an outspoken champion of photojournalist truth, and his reputation seemed secure.
But during this past decade, even while gallery prices for Smith's prints rose to five figures, his photographic methods have come under question. Ironically, the very techniques that contributed to his unique visual style - darkening selective areas of prints to create emphasis, combining parts from different negatives into a single print - are now considered ethically question-able. This comes at a time when computers have made photo manipulation infinitely simpler. Prints that took Smith a week to craft could now be similarly manipulated on a computer in under an hour.
W. Eugene Smith: Photographs 1934-1975 is a wonderful book with 136 beautifully reproduced images. And if being a showcase of Smith's images wasn't enough, the book also includes five provocative essays on his career, his professional reputation, and his influence on photography. A bibliography and reprints of four of his Life photo-essay layouts are also nice additions.
There's no denying the importance of Margaret Bourke-White to American photojournalism. She's been called the founding mother of Life magazine; she shot the first cover in 1936. In the following decades, she took photographs that are now historical icons - images of depression bread lines, the German air attack on Moscow, fenced Jewish prisoners at Buchenwald, Gandhi at his spinning wheel.
Margaret Bourke-White: Photographer is a fine presentation of her work. It includes 138 images in a large format, many from her early career and never before published. The engaging text is by Sean Callahan, who collaborated with Bourke-White on her final and most comprehensive book, "The Photographs of Margaret Bourke-White" (1972). This volume is a perfect companion to that work or an excellent introduction.
* Tom Toth is the Monitor's photography editor.