Article featured in Blown Magazine, Autumn 2010

I hate the photograph of three miners – or at least I used to. I guess this was because growing up in the Rhondda in the 1970s it was rare to see grimy miners on the street, particularly on streets as gloomy as those in the photograph. I first saw the photograph in my uncle’s collection of photo-books in a book called The Art of Photography. I used to get taken to visit my aunt and uncle on some Sundays as a treat – they lived in Barry near the island. What I didn’t realise until decades later was that we had to drive along one of the streets in the photograph to get there. Coed-Ely usually seemed such a bright place on a Sunday afternoon. Why did photographs of the Valleys always look like this when the place itself seldom did?

Later I found out that the photographer, Eugene Smith, was in fact one of the greatest. His powerful photo-essays, usually for Life magazine, were regarded as being among the best ever done. He had a profoundly humanist outlook and sided with those who suffered hardship and injustice. Whilst at first I could only see a negative reflection of the Valleys in his photograph, looking beyond its surface patina revealed something more.

Walker Evans, another of the greatest twentieth century photographers, said that this photograph was “pure photography…a stroke of romantic realism” in which “the men are actors” [1]. And this of course was the point; photographs are created to represent someone’s version of the reality. Smith wonderfully provides us with a setting in which the characters play out their parts. The terraced houses tell us this is not just about men and their work; it is about a society and a way of life. The men are dressed with the props of their class, their ages reminding us that their drama has had a past, present and a future yet to come.

Eugene Smith knew when he took this photograph one afternoon in January 1950 that these men were located in a time and place that was on the cusp. Such men had known the hardship and drudgery of coalmining and had built resilient characteristics because of it. Their society had become defiant, independent, worldly, self-educated, internationalist, humanistic and forward-looking. The promise for their future was one that included a society where the government took responsibility for the promotion and protection of social security and welfare for all. Their defiance focuses on the post-war development of free market global economies with the potential to lead to a failure to provide a socially desirable distribution of income. Smith knew he had taken a great picture, he wrote to his wife that the photograph “crackles with power” and that the miners’ faces “speak volumes of history, present and past, and what injustice can do” [2].

Smith was always searching for the truth, but this is of course elusive. He didn’t mind setting-up or directing his shots, for him the ‘moral truth’ was more fundamental than any objective one. But the taking of the photograph is just one part of its journey to the audience. Smith is also famous for his arguments with picture editors about the ways they presented his work. The feeling of dismay I felt at first seeing this photograph turned into one of wonderment when I later saw it in its original Life magazine outing. In this 1950 version there is a horizon, a sky and it is brighter! Here the editorial intervention is not that of a claustrophobic configuration as in the book, but instead one (equally as negative) where the captions cry out against the Socialists who these “grimy workmen” and “slums” represent [3]. Not much about injustice here.

Smith made hundreds of photographs in Wales, almost enough good ones for a photo-essay. He was on his way to Spain where he would make one of his greatest pieces of reportage. He didn’t return to Wales to finish his story – perhaps his success in Spain was enough. But this intense man was also taken to indulge in alcohol and amphetamines to get him through his punishing schedule and he was committed to a ‘mental hospital’ within months of his visit to Wales.

Before his death in 1978 he helped set-up the W. Eugene Smith Archive in Arizona where he printed ‘his’ version the photograph - the one generally seen today. Whilst in New York a couple of years ago I saw a photogravure version on the wall at the Aperture Foundation. The three miners looking out over my right shoulder reminded me how great Smith’s photograph really was, and also reminded me how limiting (in the hands of others) its presentation had proved to be.

[1] JOHNSON, A. 1981. W. Eugene Smith – A Chronological Bibliography. Arizona: CCP (p191)
[2] HUGHES, J. 1989. W. Eugene Smith – Shadow and Substance. New York: McGraw-Hill (p254)
[3] LUCE, H. 1950. Britain’s future is put up to the voters. In; Life 20th February (pp29-35)

© Paul Cabuts 2010