ART REVIEW : THE COMPLEX SENSIBILITY OF PHOTOGRAPHER SMITH

Times Art Critic

Photographs on view at the Temporary Contemporary look like stills from high-minded American movies of the '40s and '50s. These images of grizzled GIs and noble nurses are at once grittily realistic and a little too artificial, like a film that's been a touch over art-directed.

I mean can anybody seriously believe that that shot of three Spanish Guardia Civil was not staged? Only actors could look at once that handsome and that brutal and only a master auteur could arrange such striking light and composition.

Well, that's right, but the pictures are all images of reality taken by the man many think was the all-time master photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith. His retrospective, on view to Aug. 10, testifies to his undeniable talent with images that are branded on our brains with the unforgettable firmness of, say, Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World." There is the pathos of a GI holding a dying baby, the weary country doctor drinking coffee and smoking, a Spanish peasant woman spinning cloth with the grace of a dancer and the horrid tragedy of a Japanese mercury-poison victim who also stands in for those with atomic-radiation sickness.

But the more one looks at these pictures the odder they seem with their Boy Scout sense of social justice and their sinister black shadows that threaten to engulf the world. One's immediate hunch that a complex sensibility was at work here is clarified in Ben Maddow's excellent profile of Smith in the book that serves as the exhibition catalogue.

Actually you know you are in deep water the minute you read its title, "Let Truth Be the Prejudice." That kind of overwrought bombast was typical of Smith's prose. If he hadn't been a photographer he'd have had to be Thomas Wolfe.

The fact that Smith was a troubled character would be irrelevant to his art or to art in general if its symptoms did not echo the lives of so many artists, particularly American artists.

Smith, who died at 60 in 1978, was born in Wichita, Kan., to one of those respectable Midwestern families that play such a lethal role in so many American dramas. They might have been invented by Arthur Miller.

Smith inherited a formidable mother, a Catholic conscience and a good solid businessman father who suffered financial reverses and killed himself. He died as he was receiving a transfusion of Eugene's blood.

Like many another artist from the American mainstream, Smith grew up with compassion for the commonplace and passion for the grandiose. There is something Whitman-esque in the combination as there is in the quality of Smith's temperament.

His was one of those demanding, perfectionist egos that ballyhoos its own greatness and forever feels like a failure, charms everybody with wit and sensitivity and exploits its loved ones with the rapacity of a threshing machine. Smith had two wives, three daughters and at least five intense, long-lasting affairs with beautiful and accomplished women.

Such was the nature of his charm and the loyalty it inspired that at one financial low point the family maid took other cleaning jobs so she could loan money to the Smiths. Occasionally, he echoes some Eugene O'Neill character who brings mythic dimension to Freudian drama.

Like Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionist painters, Smith used alcohol and Benzedrine to keep his demons at bay. Later in life he threatened suicide like a litany but it was a bid for attention. He died of a stroke.

He was recognized as a photographer of talent almost from the click of his first shutter but he agonized like a suffering unknown genius. Financially and professionally, his golden years were those with Life magazine when his pictorial essays on everything from folk singers to Albert Schweitzer made him widely admired and decently rewarded.

But Smith brought a great artistic temperament to his commercial work and, almost inevitably, quit Life in a dispute over his famous essay on a poor Spanish village during the Franco regime. Ever after his spiritual agony was accompanied by crushing financial worry.

Well, what do you expect? Life--as Maddow points out--was a vehicle of middle-class entertainment and Smith, well, Smith . . . .

Smith probably should have stayed put.

The evidence here is that he was a mass-media publications kind of great artist. His images are superbly realized, but they are so fevered and artistically self-important that their content is threatened by the arrogance of their gesture. They have the rhetorical sweep of Abstract Expressionist painting and they are today obviously the products of a past period.

The period's best edge was its idealism. These pictures still believed a better world could emerge from war and suffering if we would all just be thoughtful and compassionate. Smith never falls into the cynicism of a Robert Frank, the neurosis of Diane Arbus--or the kinds of stinging truths they had to offer.

You have to admire the magnificence of Smith's vision. There is nothing here of the cool irony that entered our art in the '60s. It still tugs at the heartstrings to see Smith's admiring pictures of Albert Schweitzer, but the photographer did him so proud that he looks unreal like Gary Cooper made up to play the Great Man. Today, Smith's Romantic Idealism strains our good will. He doesn't trust the audience's sensitivities so he gives us formula melodrama.

He lapses into sentiment and cliche. A famous shot of his infant children walking into a mysterious copse is lugubriously effective. You have to sneer as much has you have to coo. And what about the black kid climbing the street sign that says "Pride St." or the convertible parked on "Dream St."? Real subtle.

Eugene Smith was not Proust. He was a troubled soul with his American Dream and his superb eye intact. It is a sensibility one outgrows with considerable regret.

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