Eugene Smith

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SMITH, W. Eugene (1918.12.30-1978.10.15) Wichita, Kansas, USA. World-renown photographer who photographed Minamata mercury-poisoning victims for Life magazine.

Started taking photos from around age 14. Smith visited Japan three times. The first time was during World War II as a reporter for Life magazine. He was assigned on the US aircraft carrier Bunker Hill in 1944 and got to photograph bombing raids on Tokyo, the invasion of Iwo Jima, and the battle of Okinawa. In May 1945, he was injured by a shell fragment on Okinawa, prompting him to return to New York.

His second trip to Japan was in 1961 at the invitation of Hitachi, Ltd. He was commissioned to photograph the company and employees and stayed for one year.

In 1971, Smith came back a third time and lived in a small fishing village in Kumamoto Pref. with his wife Aileen (a former part-time interpreter for Dentsu) for three years. (They had initially planned to stay for only three months.)

The fishing village was called Minamata. The subsequent photos were published in Asahi Camera, Camera 35, and Life ("Death-Flow from a Pipe") magazines and in a book called "Minamata." The photos brought world attention to the Minamata disease caused by mercury pollution released in the ocean by a company called Chisso.

The most famous photo was that of KAMIMURA Tomoko, who was in the bath cradled in her mother's arms. Born in 1956, Tomoko suffered mercury poisoning which had entered her bloodstream through the placenta. She was born blind and deaf and with useless legs. Smith learned about Tomoko's daily bath routine every afternoon and asked her mother if he could photograph them. He carefully checked the bath's lighting which came through an opaque window. He thought 3 p.m. was best, and took the famous photo in Dec. 1971.

Smith and his wife were attacked and injured in January 1972 during a clash between the victims and Chisso employees at the Chisso Factory in Goi. Chisso employees violently expelled the victims from the premises. Smith had to seek medical treatment in the U.S. for his injuries.

Although Smith never learned to speak Japanese, he was very fond of Japan and considered it to be his second home. A major exhibition called "Japan Through the Eyes of W. Eugene Smith" was held in late 1996 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

Japan Through the Eyes of W. Eugene Smith

Reviewed on: Jan. 11, 1998 Last modified: 2005-04-03

Catalog for the photo exhibition of the same title held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in late 1996.

大変印象的な展覧会のカタログ。

Published: Nov. 1996 Publisher: Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture ISBN: -- Price in Japan: ¥3,000 Qualities: Hard cover, B/W photos Size: A4, 195 pp. Language: Japanese and English

Eugene Smith visited Japan three times. The first time was during World War II as a reporter for Life magazine. He was assigned on the US aircraft carrier Bunker Hill in 1944 and got to photograph bombing raids on Tokyo, the invasion of Iwo Jima, and the battle of Okinawa. His second trip to Japan was in 1961 at the invitation of Hitachi, Ltd. He was commissioned to photograph the company and its employees and stayed for one year.

In 1971, Smith came back a third time and lived in a small fishing village in Kumamoto Pref. with his wife Aileen (a former part-time interpreter for Dentsu). Although they initially planned to stay for only three months, they ended up staying for three years. That fishing village was of course Minamata. His photos on the Minamata mercury poisoning were published in Asahi Camera, Camera 35, and Life ("Death-Flow from a Pipe") magazines and in a book called "Minamata." The photos brought world attention to the Minamata disease caused by mercury pollution released in the ocean by a company called Chisso. The most famous photo was that of Kamimura Tomoko in the bath being cradled in her mother's arms. Born in 1956, Tomoko suffered mercury poisoning which had entered her bloodstream through the placenta. She was born blind and deaf and with useless legs. Smith heard about Tomoko's daily afternoon bath and asked her mother if he could photograph them. He carefully checked the bath's lighting which came through an opaque window. He thought 3 p.m. was best, and took the famous photo in Dec. 1971.

In 2000, Smith's wife Aileen gave the copyright of this photograph to Tomoko's parents who now prohibit the further publication and exhibition of this photograph. They want to give Tomoko "a rest."

Smith and his wife were attacked and injured in January 1972 during a clash between the victims and Chisso employees at the Chisso Factory in Goi. Chisso employees violently expelled the victims from the premises. Smith had to seek medical treatment in the U.S. for his injuries. Although Smith never learned to speak Japanese, he was very fond of Japan and considered it to be his second home.

In late 1996, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography held a major photo exhibition of 126 B/W photos that Smith took during his three trips to Japan. This book is the catalog for that exhibition. Like the exhibition, the book is divided into three sections: World War II, Hitachi, and Minamata. Since the photos are captioned (in Japanese and English), they are easy to understand and quite educational. They offer a trip back in time when life in Japan was full of sad conflicts. Many of the photos tell a sad story. Quality English translations are provided with the Japanese text which includes reminiscing essays by a few people including his wife Aileen Smith. Unfortunately, the book has already sold out. You can read a copy at the museum's library. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)

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