Eugene Smith’s seminal photo essay Spanish Village was the setting for our first Photo Espana experience. One of six expertly curated Smith exhibitions in the cool Teatro Fernan Gomez Centro de Arte, the emotional tenor of Spanish Village virtually vibrates against the thick walls. Smith’s wish to seek out an archetypal village, which would best show the conditions of ordinary people’s lives, was fulfilled by Deleitosa, Extremadura and its inhabitants. His more specific intention – to block the American alliance with Franco – did not succeed and this perceived failure was many of the many frustrations that would haunt Smith throughout his restless life.

Of course the restlessness was also a contributing factor to Smith’s undoubted genius. The Country Doctor and Nurse Midwife set the bar of photojournalism so incredibly high, we wondered if anything else we will see this week will be even half as interesting. Such was Smith’s commitment to his work and his subjects that one caption indicated that a dying child was receiving a blood transfusion from the photographer.

A Man of Mercy was the weakest link in this otherwise great show. Not that this essay – on German Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer and his missionary work in Africa – should have been omitted. In Smith’s personal trajectory, it was a landmark, in that after his own layout was rejected by Life magazine (not for the first time) he resigned (later joining Magnum).

Smith’s obsessive layouts can be witnessed first hand in the Pittsburgh exhibition, his first Magnum work, and an extraordinary poetical evocation of a city and its rhythms. It is touches like this as well as contact sheets that can be viewed through loup that make this show much more than a thrown together retrospective.

The curator, Enrica Vigano, was keen to stress Smith’s strategy of blurring the boundaries of actuality to get to the truth (demonstrated by the two treatments of a picture of a Haitian man, a patient in an asylum, one showing just his anguished face floating out of a sea of blackness; while the original photograph showed people and objects in the background). The question of whether photographs can or should show reality or represent reality still underpins all discussions of documentary photography.

In 1971, Smith embarked on his voyage to Minimata, Japan, to drive home the realities of mercury poisoning in what was after all a man-made environmental disaster. Did he need to manipulate his pictures to show the ‘truth’ of this catastrophe? After spending an hour in the presence of these acutely humane photographs, I was left feeling that the truth of lived experience is what’s important: by any means necessary. But then you have to question who is doing the doctoring (so beloved of the Nazi regime). And the ‘right’ answer slips away like sand through your hands.

Eugene Smith
W. Eugene Smith
Steelworker with Goggles, 1955
© The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith