Native Americans have a saying that photographs would take a piece from the subjects’ soul;
What gets left out of the fine print is that it can also take a piece of the photographer’s soul…
Eugene Smith, played by Johnny Depp, tells Aileen Smith (acted by Minami) as she nonchalantly seeks his consent to take a photograph. They are at a small fishing village in the Japanese city of Minamata to document the people affected by the Minamata-bay disease – a neurological disorder caused by the methylmercury biochemical waste released into the Minamata river and the adjacent Shiranui Sea, by the fertilizer company CHISSO between 1932 and 1968. “If you decide to take that camera… be very serious about it,” he tells her in a measured tone.
Disheveled. Painful. Shattered. Eugene appears way older and tired. Yet, his character displays a rather strange combination of callousness, seasoned by devout religiousness. Just a few scenes before this, Eugene offhandedly gives away his only camera to a boy affected by the disease. Apathetic, wry, and disillusioned, Eugene expresses his frustrations in pursuit of truth, and dozes off, as the boy walks away with the camera.
The first dialogue Eugene delivers in the movie is “I am done”. He is seen at his loft at 821, 6th avenue, New York. And then, even as he burns the midnight lamp in his darkroom, he goes on to rant about this and that. As the audience, we understand that he is living alone, working on his retrospective and that he is broke and hasn’t sent money to his children for a while.
The year is 1971, a mere few months before his 600-print retrospective, ‘Let Truth Be The Prejudice’, which ended up being his last exhibition while he was alive. In 1978, at the prime age of 59, Eugene died of a heart attack. His wild photographic excursions did strike a huge blow to his health, including two serious injuries, one while covering the invasion of Okinawa in 1945 and the second during a protest at Minamata in 1971.
The first injury grounded him for almost two years, a period during which he underwent 32 operations. One of his most famous images – an image that was way different than his usual – ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden‘ was shot during this time of forced sabbatical. This photograph of his children was the very first image he shot after two years of downtime.
Eugene didn’t take that many single images. An unequaled master of 20th-century photojournalism, he pioneered what later has become popular as photo essays. Telling compelling narratives through a series of images was a style that Eugene excelled par magnifica. On the contrary, ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’ was a single image. It is visually striking and carries his intelligible styles – 35mm (remember Smith was fired by News Week in 1937 for refusing to use large format), well-orchestrated natural light, and a perfect composition that instinctively yanks the viewer’s attention to the center.
Yet, what makes ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’ unique is the subject. This image is so down-to-earth, that everyone can relate to it. It has a certain gay and happy mood. It did not have the usual dramatic violence, suffering, and agony that had become his indelible marks (A few other series of Eugene such as the ‘Jazz Loft Project’ and ‘Dream Street Pittsburgh’ were exceptions to the general rule). One need not shudder while looking at ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’. That’s why it became one of the most acclaimed images shot to date. Edward Steichen concluded his landmark photographic exhibition – titled ‘The Family of Man’ (1955) – at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with this image, skyrocketing its popularity to previously unknown heights.
We don’t get to see the faces of the children. It is a view from the back. In the film, one scene portrays Eugene insisting on his desire to photograph the face of a Minamata victim. He adds, “There is something about the eyes – when we see the eyes, we see truth…” However, faced with people’s reluctance, Eugene seeks and expresses truth elsewhere, and suddenly, the hands start speaking – not only the truth of their suffering but also that of thousands of others whose eyes are robbed of their sight. This is Eugene’s strength – revealing the hidden and hiding the obvious, joy shrouds the pain and pain becomes poetic. ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’ hides more than it discloses, and in that, it becomes all too revealing.
Eugene did have a tough relationship with his five children – very much as the film portrays. Stubborn with a mind of his own, eternally broke, obsessively focused on work, and often drunk or high on drugs, Eugene’s genius also meant that he was eccentric and difficult to deal with. His family life was in a constant state of turmoil. He married twice, once to Aileen, and had quite a few relationships. He constantly fought and beliqueted, yet he was greatly loved – as many of his friends would reminisce, often with a pinch of glum. His thorny personality was a known fact.
Was it an act of self-sabotage, as popularly considered, or a trait of pure talent that was way ahead of its time? Avant-gardes, the ones’ who challenge the ongoing norms, seem to possess similar qualities – could these be the aftereffect of the indubitable scars left by the constant fight against established systems and structures? Professionally, this personality did cause quite a havoc. In 1954, Eugene quit Time over an argument about how they presented one of his images, a picture of Nobel prize-winning physician Albert Schweitzer. He did not want to make Schweitzer a saint but just show the real person. This was not the magazine’s preference.
It is not that Eugene was oblivious to his precariousness. At times he would rant about this, while the next moment he would laugh it away as if it did not matter. But, when the night gives way to the day, he would rise with all the usual vigor and trigger. However, Eugene was genuinely upset about his derailed relationship with his children. He was constantly nagged by his inability to provide for his family. At one point in the film, Ryoko Kamimura, the mother of Tokomo, asks Eugene whether he has a picture of his children. “No, Madam,” he replies.
Now, look at ‘The Walk to Paradise Garden’ once again. It is a father looking at his children, probably watching protectively, or for a moment, he became a child again, ready to run behind them and start playing. Did Eugene truly think that photographs take a piece of the photographer’s soul?