'The Walk to Paradise Garden' by W. Eugene Smith

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by unrealnature, Nov 9, 2013.

  1. Setting aside the fact that it has since become a cliché, why do you think this iconic photograph was, and remains for many people, so popular?
    [LINK to the picture which is too contrasty, and 'black/white' -- in good print copies you'd see softer tones and a warmer, olive tint]
    How important do you think the black leaves directly over (reaching towards; threatening?) the tops of the children's heads are? What part does the black, torso-like thing (rock) on the lower right side play (cover it with your fingers and see how its absence changes the picture). What about the little girl's hand? What about the degree of tone in the white/bright parts of the picture and the nature of the stuff that's there (semi-out-of-focus)?
    You can read W. Eugene Smith's own comments about the picture here. [LINK]
    Some background info; Smith took this picture immediately after he had recovered from a severe injury incurred while covering WWII (he was hit in the head by a mortar shell). Smith first submitted it to the magazine for which he was on-salary and it was rejected. The editor said he rejected it "because the two children were walking away from the camera it would not receive and hold the interest of the reader." (Smith)
    You can probably tell from my questions above, that I think the background is key to the effect of the picture. Nevertheless, I also think that the overall soft lines of everything about the two children are also of great importance. They are corner-less, fluid.
    What makes this seemingly ordinary picture special?
  2. Julie, yes, the background, but also the foreground, and the overall effect which gives the photo a mystical, even fairy tale quality. I think that would be lost if the photo were more "technically correct". Even a cliché can still have some ascetic value... ;-)
  3. Edit: That's aesthetic, not ascetic. More coffee, please...
  4. I love Smiths work but I admit I think Walk to Paradise Garden appeals more to folks who just like a pretty picture then those who really knew what Smith was all about. It's not his best photograph, but it's OK. I even have a poster of this hanging in my kitchen. I discovered it, frame and all at a garage sale and bought it for $1. Perhaps the picture takes on more meaning when one knows the background as you stated Julie. Smith described it as being symbolic to the path his life was on after his injuries and thus when he was able to take this picture it represented a new beginning for him. Smith was an amazing photographer and I think "Walk" is probably the best example of a photograph of his that more people would hang up then any of his more powerful pictures dealing with war or pollution.
  5. Great points, Marc. It's probably best seen as part of his body of work. As a stand-alone photo it would elicit different feelings from me than as seen against the backdrop of his other work.
  6. Marc, Smith loved the photo. Is he one of those "folks who just like pretty pictures"?
    [Marc, if you don't already have it, you might want to take a look at the new Big Book by Smith. It's a facsimile of the book that Smith planned but never got to completion. This book is not for anybody who is not already familiar with Smith's work -- the images are basically photocopies of photocopies (really bad) but the arrangement (which is Smith's -- as said, this is facsimile of his own roughed out book) is pure magic, IMO. Seeing them playing off of, against one another, is amazing (as long as you are already familiar with high quality renditions of the pictures).]
    Anyway, to fill out the history a little more, Smith's wounds were awful:
    At the hospital, doctors did plastic surgery on Gene's nose and lip and installed the first in a series of false palates in the roof of his mouth. There would be four in all, each a little larger than the one before, designed to force his upper jaw back into a normal shape. During this process, they wired his jaw's together, opening them only to insert a new palate. What he ate, according to one report, 'was what could be poured through the spaces in his teeth.'​
    Smith underwent long rehab including trying times back home with his mother, his then-wife Carmen and their children.
    "His mother kept nagging him to take pictures. 'Pick up your cameras,' she'd say, 'do some work. Don't sit around feeling sorry for yourself.' she kept on and on and on [Smith's relationship with his mother was ... complicated]. 'Mother, I can't,' he'd say. And I [Carmen] would see him struggling, trying to hold a camera. And she wouldn't give him time to get over the experience of being in the war, and his injuries."
    But Gene was planning a picture. 'In two or three weeks,' he wrote his friend Bob Mitchell in early May 1946, 'there will be a day that will go down in the personal calendar of W. Eugene Smith as a day of significance. Good or bad, it will be a date to remember, along with May 22nd' [1945, the date of his injury].
    "It will be the day that I return to work once more. ... I don't know what the results will be. I haven't touched a camera since that day. ... I am lost in the way to do the things I must do ... "
    "One day," Carmen remembers, "he said to Mother and I to take Marissa, and go for a ride someplace. I said, 'You can't manage the kids.'
    " 'Oh yes I can.' So we went."
    [ ... ]
    The act was not a spontaneous one. Gene had thought the picture through, on many levels. For example, an opera that Gene had discovered during the time and played for himself repeatedly was Frederick Delius' 1907 A Village Romeo and Juliet. Within this romantic, somewhat impressionistic work was an intermezzo entitled 'A Walk to a Paradise Garden,' and it was this piece of music that Gene decided would provide the thematic structure for a visual transition of his own.
    Gene had dwelt on the making of this photograph for months. His need to express his pent-up feelings was balanced, apparently, by enormous anxieties, and he had, as Carmen accurately observed, backed off from the confrontation time and again.
    all above quotes from W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Substance by Jim Hughes (1989)​
    The picture had and has international appeal (see the linked text in my OP) as well as commercial value (it was used by the Ford Motor Co., Kodak, Mutual of New York insurance, etc. as well as being the lead photo for Steichen's 'Family of Man' exhibit).
  7. Interesting background on an interesting person. One of my idols. This linked picture is even more interesting so my wife thinks and I got to agree (nudge). It tells a story about a time when doctors still made home calls. And reveals personality and history and has a lot of depth of detail. pathos, and just plain good imagery as part of a series in Life ( I recall). When Life was the common newstand place to look for photography not only National Geographic nowadays. The one of the two children, pretty, well done, is more of the Hallmark card touch which is not saying anything derogatory and would do well as a wall portrait but maybe does not represent this wonderful guy's best work so well. The gent had guts and a real human touch and paid a high price for his art.
  8. Intense and powerful pictures rarely mean mass popularity, or in any fields of art...What's not to like about the said photo?
  9. Of course Smith loved the photo, to him it represented a 2nd chance to do what he loved. All photographers have a relationship to their own work that is at a level of intimacy and understanding that nobody else could ever possibly understand. To everyone else, it's a photo that is safe to hang in public i.e. as Leslie mentioned, it won't offend anyone or challenge their political stance or belief system etc like much of Smiths other work would. It's a nice picture in the way that an Adams picture is nice. Like I said, my $1 garage sale find of "Walk" hangs nicely in my kitchen.
  10. Other than in personal/family practice, I think there is an overwhelming bias against pictures of young, healthy, happy children in photography as being anything other than cute or sentimental. This is not the case in other media, including film.
  11. For me, the beauty in the Smith photo lies not in the dark torso-like thing or the dark leaves but in the overall contrast of darkness and light as well as the texture (and depth) of the photo. The play of shadow from the leaves to the children's clothes, the fact that the children are not bright, as might be more typical, and the texture, the overall feel of the photo, is what grabs me. It's not the background per se, but the way the children exist in their environment, seem a part of it. Seen as part of Smith's body of work, there is a haunting quality to the photo, it's darkness and its play of dark and light, both in content and form. The unknown . . . the challenge. There's an edge to it.
    It's not just a fairy tale. But it does have that aura of fantasy, of wonderland, that I could see putting people off. Though I think some of Smith's gestures work against that fairy tale reading, it isn't unreasonable for it to be seen in that light.
    Some pictures of young, healthy, happy children that, for me, overcome any biases I probably do have against sweet pics of cute kids:
  12. All opinions are based on the experience of the opiner however my views of this image are:

    1. The children are going somewhere.

    2. They are moving from dark to light.

    3. Their body language expresses maturity.

    4. Could this symbolism show leaving early age to brighter adult age?

    I do like this picture but I would never have thought to create it.
  13. Randy, I think you're right on target for W. Eugene Smith's MO. His style was High Drama. He loved to make whatever he was shooting into the heroic, the epic, the almost-mythic. When looking at his stuff, I always get the feeling of entering mid-drama -- that I am, as you noted, "going somewhere," that things are in mid-stream, usually "from dark to light" or some such epic journey. And there is always a sort of "could there be ... ?" quality to his pictures, that goes with that original "going somewhere" passing through feeling of his pictures.
    I really don't think he differentiated the use of his children from the use of any other dramatic player -- his style, his way of imagining a scene, was consistent. He made Pittsburg's street signs look heroic.
    Compare his picture to the work of Sally Mann or Helen Levitt who have done wonderful work of children. First, I would suggest that both piggy-back their way to being taken seriously by mixing in other genres (classical figure for Mann and street for Levitt). And then, compare the full-stop still-photo nature of Mann and Levitt's work, or any other of the few photographers who have taken young children seriously (Mann's At Twelve is already too old -- it is about becoming an adult, budding sexuality) -- to the ongoing High Drama of Smith's.
    I think it is Smith's dramatization that is especially attractive to many; do they recognize themselves or something of their own life or life's hopes or dreams in that drama because it is a drama? (Is that the same question I would ask about most movies, etc.?)
  14. It's an odd picture for me, contrasting childhood with other concerns or situations, as the darkness or high contrast suggests. It is not so much a picture that displays some idea or fact (it can...) but simply one that allows (...forces) different interpretations. Which might be drama, or maybe not.
    For me it doesn't come down to convincing drama, as do his emotionally more powerful images of Japanese poisoned children and their caring parents. The drama there is highlighted by the photographer, who is acting as a good reporter or observer, but I think it was already there, and in mass, in those Japanese subjects. They could have been photographed from different angles or with different lighting and the drama would almost certainly still be evident.
    The present image is somewhere in between childhood innocence or beauty and drama, suggesting, at its poles, either drama or just two little children closely tied to each other (a condition simply agreeable to an adult viewer), albeit on their way to somewhere (an undetermined but hopeful future?). I venture to suggest that it works only partially, perhaps as a result of this dichotomy.
  15. Other than in personal/family practice, I think there is an overwhelming bias against pictures of young, healthy, happy children in photography as being anything other than cute or sentimental. This is not the case in other media, including film.​
    I don't know. I am a real sucker for shooting pictures of cute kids exploring the outdoors.
  16. So how did I miss this thread? It is so up my alley, and I've enjoyed everyone's comments. (Fred's mention of it in the Casual Forum led me here...)
    A brief comment on my experience as a student of photographic history so you can filter any comments I make accordingly -- It's only been within the last 5-7 years that I became passionately interested in photography (both in terms of “being” a photographer as well as reading about photographers). I work my way slowly through various monographs and biographies, and Smith is fairly new to me as anything other than just a name of one of "the greats". This thread has been a good learning experience for me.
    As iconic as this photo may be, it's as if this thread is the first time I've really seen it (even though I've had a copy of "Family of Man" for many years). My first impression was how at home it would seem amongst all the PN entries for the "Family" contest. I don't mean that in a condescending way, that's just how it struck me. Then I started looking at the photo more closely, and trying not to let previous comments influence me.
    What strikes me is the movement of the children from a darker location to a higher location, along an angled path. There is also a slight rise in the path, the lower part in darkness, the higher part in light. The framing of the trees and leaves also struck me. In the context of what Smith was going through at that time, the climb from lower darkness into higher light seems more appropriate as a highly personal allegory than it does as a universal allegory of childhood.
    I hesitate to put in my own photo (this thread is about Smith’s photo, not “Me! Me! Me!”) but I was really struck by how I have a darker view on the movement of a child’s life toward adulthood. I took the photo below of my daughter in 2005. I had recently purchased my first digital camera, a 4mp Olympus P&S. I didn’t start taking photography seriously until 2006, so this was a pure snap, there was no thought of framing or artistic intention. Years later, I put it up on a website (possibly flickr) and someone interpreted along these lines: It is the innocent running of a child, seen alone an idyllic setting. But the movement, though in light, is along the edge of an encroaching shadow thrown by the hedge, and the movement will eventually take the child into the even darker shadows at the right of the photo. In short, they saw it as representing the movement of a child’s ease and innocence, into the darkness of the realities of adult life…where that ease and innocence is never quite the same, if it remains at all. Of course, I was taking a simple family snapshot so nothing of this at all was in my thought process at the time. I offer it here only because it shows a child in transition from light to darkness, whereas in Smith’s photo the movement is from darkness into light.
    To me it is easier to see the path from childhood into adulthood (in some ways) as going from light to dark. That’s why I interpret the opposite movement from dark into light (seen in Smith’s photograph) as being an extremely personal photograph, indicative of the photographer’s interior state at that point in time.
    I agree with Julie that there is a bias toward photos of healthy happy children as being primarily cute. I liked some of the sample photos that Fred linked to, representing ambivalence and darkness (Frank), potentially tragic whimsy (Erwitt), and sardonic commentary (Parr).
  17. Any photo can be seen in an allegorical way and Smith did apparently. We overlay things as we choose, even after the shot, to elevate and interpret and compare notes as part of community mind melds. He had a good eye, Smith did. As do others that shoot kids and nature... Do I need to look deeper, yeah probably. Express a philosophy of life, too tough and ambiguous for now. Same as question on personal style, never aim that high but it is easier when I look at other works. Althoughm truth be told, my more serious moody faces get more interest by friends of mine here in PN. Moody is always mysterious/that old dark side. (
    Apropos of nothing special, I just watched a rather dark unsettling movie called The Swimmer w Burt Lancaster. I still don't understand it, but it was deep and disturbing and unsettling and had real content....have you watched the Swimmer, and what you think? Good imagery all through it, dark and forest and rain and shadow and a journey from light to darkness unlike the Smith picture.
  18. Smith himself summed up the reasons many of us tend to have strong reactions to anything involving childhood - ranging from nostalgia to revulsion - in his implied statement that childhood is a matter of trial and terror.
    "And to the world, like Peter Pan, they never grow up ... condemned by trial, often by terror."​
    Photos of children tend to be tabula rasa upon which we etch our own stories.
  19. One comment on the mechanics of Smith's composition, before I get started on the historical stuff, below. Look at Smith's picture again, and then compare "your" (the photographer's and therefore the spectator's) position relative to the children. Smith must have been either kneeling or crouching -- we see the children "at their level" or as equals. We don't look down at them from a height -- of time and experience. Compare the angle of view in Gerry's and Steve's pictures. (Steve, I love that photo. I even like the powerlines : ) .)
    I have heard Smith's picture described as "nostalgic for the future." I think that's good, given the times of its making and public acclaim.
    It's 1955. The Second World War is still very fresh in everybody's minds. There is The Bomb. McCarthy is doing his thing. That's the year of the Family of Man exhibit that rocketed Smith's already well-known picture to its greatest fame. Here is what made Steichen do that exhibition at MoMA:
    Steichen directed an exhibition of contemporary war images, many of them photographs by David Douglas Duncan, whose book This is War Steichen called "the most forceful indictment of the subject ever put forth by photography." He saw with great disappointment, however, that while viewers momentarily found the pictures "wonderful, tragic, and some of then, ghastly," they quickly forgot them.
    They would tell him the exhibit was remarkable, Steichen complained, "and then they go out and have some drinks." For him, the 1951 exhibition was clearly a failure. He and so many others had photographed "the horrible monstrosity we call 'war,' " the "butcher shop" that set civilization back "to the animal stage," he told Wayne Miller. "Although I had presented war in all its grimness in three exhibitions, I had failed to accomplish my mission. I had not incited people into taking open and united action against war itself."
    Then he had an epiphany: If the negative images would not stimulate positive action, perhaps the positive would yield results.
    [ ... ]
    [In selecting images for the show] Steichen was seeking photographs of lovers and families and children, he said ... He wanted images of home and the environment and the richness of the earth; of "the religious rather than religions," and of "basic human consciousness rather than social consciousness." He hoped for photographs that would reveal "dreams and aspirations" and "the flaming creative forces of love and truth and the corrosive evil inherent in the lie." [ — quotes from Steichen: A Biography by Penelope Niven (1997)]​
    From Jim Hughes's biography of Smith (quoted from previously):
    In a world of hydrogen bombs and the increasing nihilism of intellectuals, Steichen correctly saw [Smith's] photograph as a powerful symbol of affirmation and hope -- a twentieth-century icon.
    "We felt that the perfect closing picture is the one reproduced here by W. Eugene Smith," Steichen would write in This Week magazine ...
    "Why perfect? A good answer, I think, lies in the words of Robert Frost. ... When a reporter asked him what he thought about life, Frost replied, Vermont-fashion, in just three words.
    "He said, 'It goes on!' "​
    There's that theme of going, passing, transitioning that has come up in many of the comments, above.
    Photo historian Ben Maddow said this of the picture:
    "The Walk to Paradise Garden" is a fascinating example of how certain photograph, especially the popular ones, have a lifetime of their own: a rise, a climax of fame, and a decline. Of course the picture itself has not changed. History, and particularly the instability of taste, has changed it for us. The picture struck the public with the symbolic force of a "Washington Crossing the Delaware" -- and the General never stood up in a rowboat either. Smith received thousands of requests from everywhere in the world, asking for a print. A copy negative had to be made, since the original negative roll had been somehow lost.
    ... Today, some photographers, particularly the young, consider this photograph to be Smith's worst lapse in taste, but the general public still loves it. [from Let Truth Be the Prejudice: W.Eugene Smith, his Life and Photographs (1985)]​
    Returning to Jim Hughes's book, when Smith went to Africa to do his now-famous photo-essay on Albert Schweitzer:
    One of Schweitzer's assistant's gave Gene a tour of the hospital facilities. In the main office he was pleasantly surprised to discover a reproduction of his photograph, The Walk to Paradise Garden.​
  20. Julie -- Good observation on Smith's angle of view on the children. It escaped me that part of the reason the upward, rising, movement is so pronounced is because, as you say, Smith was kneeling or crouching. Significant or not, it also strikes me that Smith is still in that lower, darker level behind the framed opening of foliage as he took the photograph. The children could perhaps be seen as pathfinders in a way. Showing Smith the way out.
    It is my impression that Steichen, and the optimistic values of "Family of Man", were viewed with a certain amount of derision in the wake of the world view represented by works like Frank's "Les Americains". In the context of what he perceived as the "failure" of "This Is War', his decision to put on "The Family of Man" exhibition appears less saccharine.
    It strikes me as a bit sad that some would consider The Walk to Paradise Garden to be a "terrible lapse in taste" by Smith. Maybe sad is not quite the word. Unnecessarily restricted and prejudiced, perhaps. I lean much more toward the moody, dark, and surreal in my own taste, but I don't think we always need to see brighter, optimistc images as being naive or lacking in significance. Sometimes that derision arises as a reaction against the general public and their seeming preference for bright, upbeat, optimistic images.
  21. Steve, your last paragraph could actually lead to an interesting philosophical discussion in its own right. What's are the differences and similarities between taste and prejudice? How do we tell the difference?
  22. It strikes me as a bit sad that some would consider The Walk to Paradise Garden to be a "terrible lapse in taste" by Smith.​
    Maybe it has a lot to do with Eugene Smith's lack of control over usage rights in regard to the context that iconic image has been presented.
    This is the first I've heard of this photographer and I'm glad for Julie H posting a link to his body of work, because "hackneyed" was my first gut reaction to that image due to the fact I've seen it used in so many sappy greeting cards, wedding album graphics and high school annual and graduation commencement announcements.
    The most mind blowing of the collection Julie linked to was his shot of the KKK member leader pointing at Eugene Smith with everyone's hoods pulled back except for one in the right corner. I got chills looking at that especially since I've been most impacted emotionally and embarrassed to have that as part of my Texas southerner culture.
    One thing that struck me about that iconic image now that I learned it's Eugene's own kids is they really put a lot of starch in their children's thickly layered clothing as if it was armor against the elements of the woods they were coming out of.
    Why do I always get the feeling I'm entering "Photography Church" when I read Philosophy Of Photography threads? I usually stay away because the discussions seem to get quite lengthy, pious and esoterically cerebral, but this one has been quite the opposite and a fulfilling read.
  23. "lengthy . . . esoterically cerebral"
    Yes, a sin (to continue the church metaphor) on the Internet!
  24. A picture that chimed with the spirit of the spirit of the times and Smith's own need for creative activity and relief from the horrors of war. In exactly the same groove is the Bing Crosby record of "It's Been A Long Long Time" - this might seem kitsch and mushily sentimental now, millions took it to their hearts when it came out in 1945. If anyone doesn't understand this, **** them.
  25. David, except for your expletive, you raise the very important point about context. Often, when I go to old movies, Bogart/Bacall and the like, there are hisses from modern-day audiences when men don't treat women as we've (hopefully) come to expect in this day and age. Meanwhile, I've been transported back to a different time and am watching the movie without making judgments as an outsider (to the extent I can). Sometimes, the answer is "you hadda be there."
    People like to say a piece of art (or a photo or film) should speak for itself and history or context or explanations shouldn't make a difference. I don't agree, except in some circumstances and in some situations.
  26. Then you can add social context as a factor in how this image has been received in the public, David.
    Pretty much similar to my being downright turned off and frightened by Led Zeppelin's music when I heard it in the early '70's from it being first introduced to me by the pot smoking, tattooed, hell raising crowd and now I can listen and appreciate with a more open mind far removed from what the cool kids think.
  27. Then you can add social context as a factor in how this image has been received in the public, David.
    You bet! I can't ever imagine social context NOT being a factor.
  28. I can't ever imagine social context NOT being a factor.​
    Except if the body of a photographer's work is only shared and appraised within the vacuum of a group of like (high?) minded appreciators such as curators and private collectors who rarely show and treat the work as pop art for mass consumption. I was really referring to social context in how that image has been defined by pop culture.
    How would you think the "The Walk to Paradise Garden" be appreciated today if it had been kept from public view as part of a private collection instead of its "iconic" status as defined by a mass audience to the point it's now treated and seen as "clip art"?
  29. To me the attraction of the picture is that the children are turned away from the camera. They could be anyone's children. The children are walking out of the picture, as children walk out of their parents' lives at some stage. We cannot see what they are walking towards, but then none of us knows what the future holds for our children. This picture also speaks to me of the other-worldliness of a child's life at that age, when what is mundane to the adult can have an almost magical significance to the child.
  30. The photo is popular because it has emotional resonance with anyone - which means eventually practically everyone of
    adult age- who has gone through a severely traumatic event and is seeking a way back to who they were and how the
    world seemed before it all seemed to go horribly wrong.

    I'm not big on spilling my guts in a public forum, but for me that event was my grandfather's very brutal murder (torture
    was involved) during a failed burglary, when I was eleven. It has taken me 46 years to figure out how to start letting that
    wound go, to say in my own head, to my memory of what happened, "Goodbye Grandpa, rest now." . That has only
    happened this week.

    I'm ready to consider walking on to a new garden, a new part of my life.

    So for me, the power of "TheWalk to Paradise Garden" is that it archives something Alfred Stieglitz tried and failed with in his
    series of photos of the sky, which he called "Equivalents". Smith made a modern metaphor which does not need decoding
    and deciphering. You see it and you get it.
  31. Catharsis.
    Gene identifies with the horizontal figure. This is not to say that he takes himself to be Christ but he identifies with the victim who has suffered unjust punishment. ... He believed profoundly in the Fall of Man. His life's duty was to stalk this world and to lie in wait for its rare moments of nobility, its redemption from the Fall. These were the moments he wished to record. ... Such moments he then offered back to the world as a form of catharsis.
    John Berger, 'Pieta: W. Eugene Smith'​
  32. W. Eugene Smith's photograph has been used in various ways over the years. A photo teacher told me
    he bought an LP once - not because of the music, but it had Smith`s 'The Walk to Paradise Garden` as cover photo.

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