Is Gene Smith turning in his grave?

I write this entry in mid-May in a pretty agitated state of mind.  I am posting this in September because posting it in May might have burnt a bridge for me professionally.  I also wanted to see if the anger I felt back in May subsided.  It has not and so I am burning a bridge now.

2013 will be the last time I apply for the W Eugene Smith award.  I have applied approximately twenty five times over the last thirty years. During that time, I have been rejected plenty of times (which is par for the course.) I have also been a finalist a few times (which certainly has been flattering.) Over that same time period, I have noted a couple disturbing trends which peaked (in my mind) this year.

According to their web-site “the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography was established in 1979 following the death of Gene Smith, the legendary American photo essayist.”

This year the committee started charging a fifty dollar fee to apply. Fifty dollars!  I am fortunate that I can afford that fee at this time. In years past, I simply could not afford fifty dollars. Until this year I never had to worry about such fees, since the competition was always free of any fees.  I am spending the fifty dollars for one last shot at the award (and to give me some stake in the issue I am writing about) but never again!

If they want to charge ten dollars an application that might make sense, but not fifty.  That fifty dollar fee also excludes most photographers who are working in the developing world where fifty dollars really is a lot of money.

Equally importantly, the photographer who is supposed to be memorialized by this same fellowship, W. Eugene Smith rarely had that kind of extra money sitting around.  Smith was well known for living minimally, at best.  Were Smith alive today, I am pretty sure he would struggle to come up with that kind of money to apply for something that would really look like a real long shot, at best, to him.

The other thing that Smith was known for was telling stories in different ways depending on his topic, his message and his point of view. Since Smith was known for manipulating his imagery in the darkroom it is not a stretch to say he would likely have embraced digital imaging in general and Photoshop in particular. Having studied Smith’s work and career, I also think it is fair to say he would have embraced multi-media, new media or whatever you want to call the new imaging strategies that are proliferating in the photography world today.

Certainly, many of his best photo-essays showed people suffering and facing challenges, but as his work evolved, his aesthetic strategies expanded.  His later work moved beyond the simplistic image of human suffering that dominates so much of the award winning documentary photography out there today.

Would Smith have embraced an approach like I have taken with my Foreclosed Dreams work?  Would he have appreciated the approach where I do not show the faces of the people devastated by foreclosure?  I am not sure, but I do know that Smith’s goal was to get the viewer to feel as if they were experiencing the lives (and traumas) of the people at the heart of his stories.

If you assume Smith would have continually adapted his aesthetic strategies over the last thirty years, then you might be troubled to learn that the awards committee’s aesthetic criteria has not changed over the last three decades.  I know this first hand because:

1) The winners of the award over the last thirty years almost invariably used the same aesthetic. That being, relatively straight on documentary images showing suffering people in their daily lives.  While that is one way of telling a story, contemporary photographers have generated dozens of other strategies to tell their stories, such as the one I am using, for example.

2) The only time I was ever a finalist was a few times, years back when I was submitting similarly straight on documentary images.  Early projects of mine on a homeless family living in a school bus and my project on the pesticide poisoning of farm workers, succeeded with the judging committee to get me into the finalist’s round.

I can only speculate that W. Eugene Smith would be turning in his grave if he knew all this.  I am pretty sure he would be unhappy to know that an award given out in his name now costs so much that photographers like him would be excluded.  He probably would be equally unhappy to know that in a calcified effort to pay homage to his work, the awards committee has locked itself into an aesthetic that yes, he pioneered, but an aesthetic Smith surely would have assumed would also change with time.

3 responses to “Is Gene Smith turning in his grave?”

  1. Where do the profits from the fees go? If they go back into the fund – and then onto the prizewinners – then it might not be so bad! Are we blaming the cash-crisis for any of this?

  2. The fund seems to have good resources because for two decades they never charged

  3. David, I couldn’t agree more about how Gene Smith would feel. I never met him, but I know Aileen and many other people who knew him well. His being chronically short of funds is one thing almost everyone mentions. Another is of course the way his darkroom magic was just as important to the power of his images as what he did up to the time he pressed the shutter–one of the few things he had in common with Ansel Adams, perhaps.

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