Everyone's life is finally inexplicable; William Eugene Smith's was rather less so. His vocation, he once said, was to do nothing less than record, by word and photograph, the human condition. No one could really succeed at such a job; yet Smith almost did. During his relatively brief and often painful life (he died in 1978 at age 59), he created images so powerful that they have altered the perception of history. (More than 250 are on display at the Temporary Contemporary through August 10.)
Until he was 25, W. Eugene Smith's work as a magazine photographer had been remarkably consistent. It was clever, interesting, quick-witted and quick-eyed, and skilled in a narrow repertory of compositional habits. World War II would change all that. As a Navy correspondent, he was plainly shocked by the blood, madness, pain, filth and horror. He felt it first in the death of strangers--young Navy pilots burned alive--and ultimately in the death of courageous friends. He smelled the stench of war from the air while strapped into a torpedo bomber.
Characteristically, he sought to get closer to these mortal questions, to photograph on the ground, in the dirt of combat, alongside the point platoon. Despite these risks, he was always dissatisfied with himself, always looking for the perfect image that would sear the minds of the people at home.