THE STORY OF A PHOTOGRAPH

NOTE: Part of the joy of retirement is both the learning and the sharing of what I call “fascinations.” Sometimes those fascinations are things I knew before retirement. Sometimes the information is fascinating, fun and new to me. This week I give to you four entertaining and trivial fascinating fascinations. I hope you enjoy them.


In my life-before-retirement I was a college professor. For many years of my career I taught photojournalism, and I have always been fascinated by photographs and photographers.

One of my favorite photographs is the one pictured above. It is by the photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. It is a photograph Smith made in 1946 of his two young children on a path in a wooded area near his home. The photo, which is in many collections of the best photos of the twentieth century, is titled The Walk to Paradise Garden. It has been said it symbolizes such elements as hope, childhood, innocence, and friendship.

But there’s actually much more to the story of this photograph.

You see, W. Eugene Smith was, in the early 1940’s, a war photographer, primarily for “Life Magazine.”

He was known as a photojournalist of legendary intensity, passion, commitment and, at times, epic irascibility. While covering the fighting in the Pacific in the latter days of World War II, Smith was badly wounded during his “thirteenth Pacific invasion.” He was taken back to the States, where he endured two years of surgeries and rehab.

On the spring day when he made his Paradise Garden photograph, Smith was in the midst of what might best be characterized as a spiritual crisis: his body half-mended, his confidence in his abilities as a photographer wavering, his memories of the horrors of what he’d witnessed on Saipan and Iwo Jima and other battlefields still brutally fresh in his mind. Because of his wounds and long recovery Smith had not made a photograph in many, many months. In fact, according to his accounts, he was not sure that he could make another photograph that would, ultimately, matter.

Yet, there came a day when he was determined to see if he could still be a photographer. He has called it a day “of spiritual decision.” He picked up his camera and went outside with his two young children, Pat and Juanita. His body was still in severe pain. He followed his children. He watched, and waited. And then, as he tells it right in front of him, he saw it unfold.

“Pat saw something in the clearing, he grasped Juanita by the hand and they hurried forward. While I followed my children into the undergrowth and the group of taller trees—how they were delighted at every little discovery!—and observed them, I suddenly realized that at this moment, in spite of everything, in spite of all the wars and all I had gone through, that on that day, I wanted to sing a sonnet to life and to the courage to go on living it.”

Damaged, hesitant, frightened—Smith had every excuse in the world not to spend that spring afternoon walking in the woods with his young children, hoping and perhaps even praying for a moment to reveal itself, a moment that would force him to raise the camera to his eye, and shoot. To his eternal credit, however, he did exactly that—and viewers have been drawing inspiration from his private, solitary triumph ever since.

Smith went on to have a great career working for “Life.” He was one of the first photojournalists to shoot what came to be called “photo essays.” He published books and came to be regarded as one of the greatest photojournalists ever. He died in 1978 at the age of 59.

The story of this photograph has always been one of my favorites.

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2 Responses to THE STORY OF A PHOTOGRAPH

  1. Kem says:

    This has always been one of those photographs that I’d like to see the negative of. I once saw what appeared to be a straight print made from Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima flag raising shot. Changed my view of it.

    • JH says:

      Yes, I’m sure there’s some darkroom manipulation (dodging/burning) in the finished print. I’m guessing a print from the negative would have many more gray tones in it.

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