Recent events brought to mind a photograph by W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978), one of the greatest photojournalists of all time. Forgetful of personal risk, Smith wedded “news” photographs to a powerful aesthetic sensibility, creating a body of unforgettable work.
Smith was an idealist. During WWII, he aimed for nothing less than showing the horrors of war so vividly that people would recoil from the prospect in the future. As a Life Magazine photographer, he landed with marines during 13 Pacific island invasions, including the battles of Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.
His almost legendary luck deserted him on Okinawa, when he was hit in the face and hand by mortar fragments. “I forgot to duck but I got a wonderful shot of those who did,” he said. “My policy of standing up when the others are down finally caught up with me.”
Two years and 30 operations later he was still not sure he’d be able to use a camera again. “The day I again tried for the first time to make a photograph I could barely load the roll of film into the camera. Yet I was determined that the first photograph would be a contrast to the war photographs and that it would speak an affirmation of life.”
He followed his children as they went for a walk. Fighting pain in his spine and hand, he took a single picture he called, “The Walk to Paradise Garden.”
The photo achieved world-wide fame when Edward Steichen chose it as the final image in his “Family of Man” exhibit in 1955. Smith later wrote, “While I followed my children into the undergrowth and the group of taller trees…I suddenly realized that at this moment, in spite of everything, in spite of all the wars and all I had gone through…I wanted to sing a sonnet to life and to the courage to go on living it.”
I think as 2012 draws to a close, we all are in need of “sonnets to life and to the courage to go on living it.” Smith’s photograph is the one that I am thinking of at this time.