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Passings: Jim Hughes, Photographer, Editor, and Author of Smith Biography, Dies at 81

By David Schonauer   Monday January 21, 2019


Jim Hughes, editor of Camera Arts magazine and author of “Shadow and Substance: The Life and Work of an American Photographer,” the definitive biography of W. Eugene Smith, died late last month at his home in Camden, Maine. He was 81.

PPD learned of his death through Hughes’s longtime friend David Lyman, founder of the Maine Photographic Workshop.

Hughes was also a founder and past president of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, which administers the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography and the Howard Chapnick Grant for the Advancement of Photojournalism.

After working in magazine and newspaper journalism — he was editor of Camera 35 from 1967 until 1975, and the Popular Photography Annuals from 1975 to 1980 — Hughes founded Camera Arts in 1980. In 1982 the magazine won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Besides “Shadow & Substance” (1989), Hughes also authored “Ernst Haas in Black and White” (1992) and “The Birth of a Century: Early Color Photographs of America” (1994).

“Jim knew a little bit about everything and a lot about a lot—he was a student and a scholar of photography, and he had a great mind and a great memory,” noted Michael C. Johnston at The Online Photographer, a blog that Hughes contributed to.

“When I was in fifth grade, for reasons I do not remember I started a neighborhood ‘newspaper.’ I ran my rather primitive efforts off on the school's hand-cranked mimeograph. Printed in purple. No possibility of photographs, of course. It didn't last long, but from then on I was hooked on printed communication, which I found preferable to talking,” Hughes told April Watson, curator of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in a 2016 interview. He also became interested in photography at a young age. “When I was 8 or so, my father gave me a Baby Brownie Special, through which I squinted unproductively for months. Eventually, probably inevitably, I appropriated my mother's Agfa box camera, which gave me large rectangular pictures on 616 film.”

After breaking into publishing, Hughes heard that the editor of Camera 35 was leaving, and he applied for the job. “Besides editing magazines I didn't really like, I'd been writing unfinished plays and photographing panhandlers on the Lower East Side, hardly top-notch credentials,” he told Watson.

“Foremost in my mind was the need to find new photographers and photography, with an eye to introducing them to a wider audience of serious enthusiasts,” he said. “So I published, for the first time and in increasing depth, such people as Ralph Gibson, Larry Clark, Eva Rubinstein, Melissa Shook, George Gardner, Jill Freedman, Sean Kernan, Charles Gatewood, Jody Cobb, Danny Lyon, Duane Michals, Mark Jury, and many other now familiar names.”


In 1975, he dedicated most of an issue of Camera 35 to publishing W. Eugene Smith's "Minamata" essay, for which Smith was awarded the 1974 Robert Capa Gold Medal for "exceptional courage and enterprise" by the Overseas Press Club. Moving on to be the editor of the Popular Photographer Annuals, Hughes published photographer Eugene Richards’s groundbreaking essay “Dorchester Days.”

“It was while working with those intensely focused photographs that I became more fully aware of the fractured, explosive and often painful style that would set Gene Richards' work apart from, and ahead of, any other documentary photographer working at the time,” he told Watson.

He launched Camera Arts in 1980 with the goal of creating a publication that would explore the literature of photography. “With most magazines,” he wrote in his inaugural Editor's Journal, “photographs are used primarily to illustrate words. In Camera Arts, words will be used to illuminate photographs.” In 1983 Camera Arts was folded by its parent company due to what Hughes called “corporate skullduggery.”


The loss of the magazine, however, paved the way for Hughes to work on his monumental biography of W. Eugene Smith.

In his 2016 interview with Watson, Hughes surveyed the state of modern documentary photography and how its position in culture had changed over the years.

“Life magazine at its peak had millions of readers. It wasn't always great, but it was widely available, it was cheap, and it profoundly influenced its times,” he said. “Readers kept the magazine, read and re-read it, talked about it, often took its contents to heart. They paid attention. Now, socially aware and deeply committed photographers like Gene Richards are faced with finding fewer and fewer outlets for their work, More and more they must depend on grants (call it the kindness of strangers). They publish their work in limited distribution and necessarily expensive books they sometimes must subsidize themselves. Or they show their work in the occasional museum or gallery exhibition. Often, the result is preaching to the choir. Such photography is a powerful and universally understood language, but it must be seen, and seen widely, again and again, to be effective.”

Hughes is survived by his wife, Evelyne.
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At top: Hughes at work at Camera 35 in 1973, by David Lyman

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