…well, not word-for-word — “Shadow and Substance, Jim Hughes’s biography of W. Eugene Smith.
I became interested in Smith when I saw the (previously recommended) documentary “The Jazz Loft” on STARZ. There was comparatively little about this portion of Smith’s life in “Shadow,” but it was an exemplary biography. Smith kept voluminous records — photographs (of course), writings, tape recordings — in which Hughes immersed himself. He also interviewed dozens of Smith’s family members, friends, lovers, and professional associates, many of whom spoke at length and ultra-candidly about him. The result is a complete, compelling, non-agenda driven portrait of a man who was a dedicated and gifted transformative artist — and an utter mess. I never learned to appreciate the art of photography as thoroughly as I did from this book, and I rarely have encountered someone at whose behavior I have mournfully and scornfully have shaken my head.
Smith’s father suicide when he was a teen. Smith was so tied to his mother that he moved her in with himself and his wife after their marriage — and kept her there, over his wife’s displeasure, following the birth of their children. He abused dexadrine, benzadrive and scotch for decades. He took risks while covering WW II that, literally, almost got his head blown off. He cheated on wives and lovers and abused them all. He spent money on photography supplies rather than feed his children — and he later abandoned them. He destroyed working relationships through his perfectionism and demands. He was always broke and seeking loans he would not repay. He subjected himself to beatings and poisons. He…
Well, he produced brilliant work. He undoubtedly believed that was the important thing. I don’t recall even one of the people whom he mistreated most badly calling his behavior — I don’t know — criminally insane in its infliction of misery and grief.