W. Eugene Smith
Frontline Soldier with Canteen, Saipan, 1944
W. Eugene Smith wanted his graphic war photographs to show people the truth about war and change the world:
I would that my photographs might be, not the coverage of a news event, but an indictment of war – the brutal corrupting viciousness of its doing to the minds and bodies of men; and, that my photographs might be a powerful emotional catalyst to the reasoning which would help this vile and criminal stupidity from beginning again. (1)
A naive view, perhaps, even if Smith was not the first – or the last – photographer
to hold it. It is unlikely, however, that anyone ever acted upon that belief with
quite the same passion. Arguably the greatest of all photojournalists, Smith photographed
World War II with wild intensity and unrivaled skill. He produced images that continue
to serve as one measure of
Here, Smith worked up close, capturing two soldiers in a simple, strong composition.
Whatever his general feelings about war, Smith, like his friend the war correspondent
Ernie Pyle, was sympathetic toward regular enlisted men and tried to portray them
with "compassionate understanding." (3) This shot suggests pure need, pure thirst,
with the intensity of combat implied by the intensity of a brief respite. The drinking
soldier is sharply rendered, set against the slightly out-of-focus but still forceful
presence of the soldier looming behind him. This image is all about immediacy, with
the camera recording gesture and expression – emphasizing physical details, such as
the unshaven face, the grit, the sweat, and, above all, that drink of water.
Smith was seriously wounded in May 1945, during the invasion of Okinawa, and his photographic tour of duty was over. Still recovering a year later, he took a picture of his two small children on a woodland path, emerging from darkness into light. The Walk to Paradise Garden (cat. no. 29) attained international fame after serving as the final image in the blockbuster 1955 touring exhibition The Family of Man and its accompanying book. But that was later and worlds away. The Saipan photograph offers no hint of that vision of what Smith called "a gentle moment of spirited purity." (4) In portraying a break from combat, it keeps us focused on the men without losing sight of the war.
1. Quoted in Lincoln Kirstein, "W. Eugene Smith: Success or Failure, Art or History,"
in W. Eugene Smith, W. Eugene Smith: His Photographs and Notes (New York: Aperture, 1969), n.p.