An Empathetic Glimpse: Country Doctor
Hello there! Welcome to Light Leaks, a selfish blog that will (hopefully) serve the greater good. Let me explain! Inspiration comes from all over the place for artists, photographers included. It could be anything from the circular patterns of mug stains to a stool and a unicycle. For me, perennial inspiration comes from looking at photography of years gone by. There is something so raw about photography before the new millennium that drives me to make new work. But it runs deeper than that.
As a post-modernist (that's any photographer making art after the late 60s,} each image I make represents a new leaf on the great tree of photography. Many aspects influence the outcome of that image, like the quality of the light and the seasons. But one of the most important, and often neglected, is the nutrients pulled up from the roots. And the roots on the tree of photography run wide and deep. They carry hundreds of years of wisdom that we can draw from to make exquisite art. What's even more beautiful is that when our time has gone, our leaves will fall to the Earth and become part of the root system itself for future images to adorn our tree. This is why I created Light Leaks.
Alright, now that I've gotten all the philosophical stuff out of the way, let's crack open our history books to the photo essay chapter and get started with Country Doctor by Eugene Smith.
Documentary photography can be presented for digestion in many different ways such as gallery presentations or a book complete with written details and accounts. My personal favorite are photo essays. A photo essay's main goal is to walk you through a story with images, short descriptions, and captions. But the words are merely contextual support. A good photo essay will allow you an empathetic glimpse at the subject's emotions through imagery.
Eugene Smith was an absolute master at the empathetic glimpse. He understood that the best images come from familiarity. That doesn't necessarily mean the subject is comfortable in front of the camera, rather that they are familiar with the photographer's presence. He once said "to became neighbors and friends instead of journalists. This is the way to make your finest photographs.” And he could become a neighbor and a friend with a subject in a short amount of time, as seen in Country Doctor.
Smith had an on-again/off-again relationship with LIFE magazine. It was during his second stint with the photo magazine in 1948 that he went on assignment to Kremmling, Colorado to follow Dr. Cerianai. Kremmling was a small town with miles and miles of rural families surrounding it all they way up into the Rocky Mountains. One man, Dr. Ceriani, was tasked with tending to all of the medical needs of everyone in the community. This jack-of-all-trades had to tend to all sorts of medical needs ranging from surgeries to dental needs to births and everything in between.
As you can imagine this was an exhausting job. And, unfortunately, it was a common one in rural communities. LIFE sent Smith out with the express desire to bring the story of rural to national attention. In my opinion, they couldn't have chosen a better man for the job. Smith was known for disarming his subjects quickly which enabled him to blend in with the wallpaper and catch authentic moments on film. It was this skill that made this photo essay the benchmark for all photo essay's to follow. Smith was rarely completely happy with his work and its presentation. In fact he fought with LIFE and their edit of the story and would eventually leave LIFE again after further disagreements later on. Nevertheless, this project has firmly taken root as a defining moment in photojournalism.
"He (Smith) would always be present. He would always be in the
shadows. I would make the introduction and then go about my business as if he were just a door knob" - Dr. Ernest Ceriani.
A selection of photos from Country Doctor. ©Magnum Photos ©The Heirs of Eugene Smith
How did Smith develop this magical ability to observe his subjects as though he were no more than a doorknob or a shadow? I think the answer can be found in his own words; "The journalistic photographer can have no other than a personal approach; and it is impossible for him to be completely objective. Honest—yes. Objective—no." Honesty with his subjects about the purpose and goals of his project, his feelings about the situation and just being open at the outset took away any apprehension and reservations that would cause his subjects to clam up in front of the camera.
This is a lesson I have had to learn the hard way, and sometimes still fail at implementing. It's easy for me to "fluff up" the project by getting philosophical and sharing the impact I hope it has on society. This puts enormous pressure on the subject and they may fear they won't fit the mold I have created for them and become unsure in front of the camera. However, if I keep things simple and honest, people are more likely to work with me and share more genuine moments.
I have one final thought that I want to discuss concerning W. Eugene Smith and Country Doctor. Never-ending fatigue clearly followed Dr. Ceriani wherever he went as he selflessly served his community. This is a common ailment, called burnout, many doctors, nurses, and aides suffer even today. Especially during a pandemic. Country Doctor can serve as a visual reminder that our medical teams are out there giving it their all to manage this illness and keep our communities safe and I just want to extend the warmest feelings of gratitude towards them. They are real life heroes, just like Dr. Ceriani.
Thank you so much for sitting underneath the great tree of photography with me and learning about W. Eugene Smith and Country Doctor. See you next time.
Written by Ashley Anderson
Check out Country Doctor as it was originally published in LIFE here.