Lessons from W. Eugene Smith

Lesson Details

Subject: Shooting

Title: Lessons from W. Eugene Smith


In 1960, photojournalism crossed the line from representational craft to art form. Today, it is not uncommon to see photography in great art museums or to pay vast sums for great photographs. What allowed photography to cross this divide was, more than anything else, the invention of small hand-held cameras, they changed the way photographers worked. 

Freed of tripods and assistants and lights, a whole new genre was invented. Now, we can do for video what Leica and Magnum (among others) did for photography. And in doing so, you can be part of a visual revolution.


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OK so you understand the difference, the potential difference between having this giant camera and a small camera. It’s the ability to shoot intimately. It’s not just the ability to shoot intimately; it’s the ability to act intimately. If you have to book a crew, you have to book a cameraman, a soundman and a shooter or even if you just book a really good shooter, and you’ve got him for five or six hours and he’s charging you by the hour there’s a natural inclination to get in, get what you need and get out.

Which is fine for some things, but in a journalistic sense, it requires time and intimacy. There’s a natural relationship between the amount of time that you can spend with a story and the quality of the images that you’ll get. Simply because of the intimacy involved. If you have to go with someone else, first of all it’s distracting to have a second or a third or even a fourth person show up with an army of professional cameramen. You’re going to change the entire dynamic. But if you can work by yourself, the way a great photojournalist works, if you can imbed yourself into a story. If you can spend the time necessary to make a story work so that people begin to open up to you and trust you and begin to live with you, you can get a much better piece, not only visually in terms of the intimacy of shooting but you can get a much better piece journalistically because the time spent on the story. One of the tragedies up until now, of most television and television journalism has been that no time is spent. You come in, you shoot for an hour and you leave.

That’s not enough time to learn any kind of a story. A great print journalist can spend days, months even weeks on a story. A great photojournalist imbeds themselves into a story because it’s just them. It’s just them and the time that they can spend. This is a shot, again W. Gene Smith from Life magazine on Minamata which was a Japanese town which was poluted by a mercury overflow and the children were born with terrible birth defects. This is a mother bathing her child. Absolutely, absolutely beautiful stunning compelling work. And the reason Smith was able to get things like this is because not only he had a great eye, and not only he work by himself, but he was able to imbed himself into the community of Minamata spend a lot of time there. Get people’s trust, get into families and have them open up to him in ways that you would never be able to do with a reporter, and a cameraman and soundman and a lighting man and everybody else.

It just wouldn’t happen. So when we talked about advanced shooting techniques, it’s not a different way of setting the shutterspeed on the camera, we can talk about that later. It’s not a different way of lighting. We can talk about that later also.

What I’m really interested in here is creating a completely different texture of journalism. A completely different feel and one that comes much closer to what Smith and other great photojournalists have been able to do largely because alright they have great eyes and they are greatly talented but largely because the technology suddenly unleashed this ability to create this sense of intimacy, the kind of intimacy that you see here.

Another note about Smith, Smith invented a fantastic process for Life magazine. He was hired by Henry Luce who launched Life magazine in 1929 as a photographer but Smith created something entirely different. And in the next lesson, we’re going to talk about how that invention can be used by you to create much more compelling stories.

© Michael Rosenblum & Lisa Lambden 2015