Landmark photos explore anguish of mercury poisoning

Sad is too small a word to describe the depth and complexity of the feelings prompted by W. Eugene Smith's landmark 1970s pictures of mercury poisoning victims.

Certainly, his searing portraits of children whose bodies have been twisted, blinded and dehumanized by the toxic metal rank among the most tragic images you will ever see.

But so profound is the impact of these horrific yet often beautiful black-and-white photos that they also evoke fear, anger and disgust — all mixed up in a soul-wrenching kind of compassion.

Such unusually compelling experiences can be found not just once but many times at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, where "Unbearable Beauty: Triumph of the Human Spirit, Photographs by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith" explores both the genius of a master and the heartbreak of some of his most memorable subjects.

Made up of more than 40 images selected by College of William and Mary art professor Elizabeth Mead, the exhibit showcases such powerful portraits as "Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath," which sparked worldwide acclaim and controversy after it was taken in 1972.

It also features portraits from the rest of Smith's celebrated session with this woefully stricken little girl and her faithful mother, plus three other striking series documenting the staggering physical and emotional trials of the environmental disaster's other victims. Then there is the unexpected chance to study three of the photographer's marked-up contact sheets, which show how he chose the best and most evocative shots from a pool of already stunning images.

Born and raised in Kansas, Smith was no stranger to the often brutal consequences of fortune.

He cut his teeth as a professional photographer on the battlefields of the Pacific during World War II and was seriously wounded in the hand and face during the bloody invasion of Okinawa.

In addition to his distinctively blunt and vivid images of wounded and dying soldiers, however, Smith also won renown for such moving family portraits as his 1946 picture of his two small children in "The Walk to Paradise Garden." A decade later, this iconic photo was chosen by Edward Steichen as the closing image for "The Family of Man" — a groundbreaking Museum of Modern Art exhibit.

Smith earned additional acclaim for his pioneering work at Life magazine, where he helped invent the photo essay through his studies of such subjects as a Southern midwife, a small-town country doctor and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. He and his wife, Aileen, were installing an exhibit of his work in Japan in 1971 when they learned about the Minamata Bay mercury poisoning disaster.

Smith wasn't the first photographer lured by this environmental tragedy, which was suspected as early as 1956 and ultimately affected thousands of children and adults. But he and his wife spent three years living with the beleaguered people who lived in the villages around the bay — and they continued to take pictures of what they found even after Smith was badly beaten by thugs allegedly hired by the company charged with releasing the mercury pollutant.

Often dramatically illuminated, these dark, velvety black studies explore such subjects as 16-year-old schoolgirl Shinobu Sakamoto, capturing her daily struggle with her twisted hands and distorted, cross-eyed vision through a series of shots showing her trying to eat with chopsticks. Two portraits of 11-year-old Takako Isayama are no less moving, depicting not only her disfigured hands, face and body but also her mother's physical strain as she carries her helpless child along a Minamata breakwater.

Both "Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath" and "Tomoko Outside Bath" are works of genuine greatness in a formidable show, employing splashes of light, deep shadow and allusions to the mother-and-child bond between Mary and Christ in ways that create irresistibly moving images of suffering and caring.

Though the first is the most famous — and no longer reproduced because of the family's request after Tomoko's early death — the companion image is just as riveting. And seen here with an indelible series of shots documenting the child's gnarled and twisted hands, they create one of the most moving and evocative groups of photographs you will ever see — anywhere.

Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 and Find him at

Want to go?

What: "Unbearable Beauty: Triumph of the Human Spirit, Photographs by W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith"

Where: Muscarelle Museum of Art, off Jamestown Road on the campus of the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg

When: Through June 20

Cost: $10

Info: 221-2700/