William Eugene Smith (December 30, 1918, Wichita, Kansas – October 15, 1978, Tucson, Arizona) was an American photojournalist known for his refusal to compromise professional standards and his brutally vivid World War II photographs.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Smith began his career by taking pictures for two local newspapers, the Eagle and the Beacon. He went to New York City and began work for Newsweek and became known for his incessant perfectionism and thorny personality. Smith was fired from Newsweek for refusing to use medium format cameras and joined Life Magazine in 1939. He soon resigned from Life and was wounded in 1942 while simulating battle conditions for Parade magazine.
As a correspondent for Ziff-Davis Publishing, Smith entered World War II on the front lines of the island-hopping American offensive against Japan, photographing U.S. Marines at Saipan, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. On Okinawa, Smith was hit by mortar fire.
After recovering, Smith re-joined Life and perfected the photo essay from 1947 to 1954. In 1950 he was sent to the UK to cover the General Election, in which Labour, under Clement Attlee, were victorious. Because of the owner’s disapproval of the result, a limited number of Smith’s photographs of working-class Britain were published, including three shots of the South Wales valleys. In a documentary made by BBC Wales, Professor Dai Smith traced a miner who described how he and two colleagues had met Smith on their way home from work at the pit and had been instructed on how to pose for one of the photos published in Life.
Smith severed his ties with Life again over their use of his photos of Albert Schweitzer and began a series of book-length photo essays in which he strove for complete control of his subject matter. Complications from his consumption of drugs and alcohol led to a massive stroke from which Smith died in 1978.
Today, Smith’s legacy live on through the “W. Eugene Smith Fund” to promote “humanistic photography” which has since 1980 awarded photographers for exceptional accomplishments in the field.