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What We Learned This Week: Reconsidering Two Historic Photo Essays

By David Schonauer   Friday August 23, 2019


One celebrated an overworked and humble American doctor.

The other exposed the impoverished world of a 12-year-old boy in Rio de Janeiro.

This week we looked back on two historic photo essays. The first, W. Eugene Smith’s “The Country Doctor,” is, as the Magnum photo agency has noted, “widely regarded as representing a definitive moment in the history of photojournalism.” In 1948, Life magazine commissioned Smith to document the life of Dr Ernest Guy Ceriani, a general practitioner providing 24-hour medical care to more than 2,000 people in the Rocky Mountain town of Kremmling, Colorado. The story, adds Magnum, was important at the time for drawing attention to the national shortage of country doctors and the impact of this on remote communities.

We spotlighted a new video from All About Street Photography focusing on how Smith went about photographing Dr. Ceriani’s world with what Smith himself called a “wallpaper” approach to photojournalism — fading into the background to capture intimate and authentic moments. The video begins with a quote from the doctor: “He would always be present. He would always be in the shadows,” Ceriani once said of Smith.

“From close-up shots of Ceriani performing surgery to photographs of the exhausted doctor sleeping atop his own operating table, the photoessay provides an unusually personal insight into the intimacies of a doctor’s working life,” notes Magnum. Smith was infuriated with the way Life chose to lay out the story — like many of his essays, the arrangement of the images in sequence were meant to provide a narrative about the doctor’s life. “Ultimately, however, his work is so distinctive because it takes the format of the traditional photoessay while infusing the stories with a psychological depth and intricacy of narrative heretofore unprecedented in photojournalism,” notes Magnum.

We also spotlighted an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles called “Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story,” which focuses on a story that ran in Life magazine in June, 1961. At the time, noted Hyperallergic, the administration of President John Kennedy was endeavoring to develop closer relationships in Central and South America, and Life decided to publish a special issue on Latin America. Parks, a former Life staffer — he was the magazine’s first African-American staff photographer — was commissioned to document poverty in Rio de Janeiro.

Parks more or less ignored instructions to center his photo essay on the father of a poverty-stricken family, instead focusing on the family’s  asthmatic 12-year old son, Flávio da Silva (above), noted Hyperallergic. Parks’s extraordinary work triggered an outpouring of donations from Life’s readers, but, as the museum notes, it also sparked controversy, particularly in Brazil, where resentment was felt over an American magazine's depiction of the country's poverty.

“After all the acclaim and criticism for his photographs, Parks never abandoned his subject, returning to Brazil many times to photograph again and again,” noted Hyperallergic.

Here are some of the other photo stories we spotlighted this week:
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1. How Sarah Blesener Captures the Roots of US Nationalism

Photographer Sarah Blesener’s 2016 series “Toy Soldiers” documented Russian tweens and teens partaking in government-mandated “patriotic education” programs. More recently she has turned her camera on American kids — between 8 and 18 years old — training in US patriotic programs, where American history lessons overlap with bible study sessions as well as military and wilderness survival training, noted Hyperallergic. The work is on view at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, NJ.


2. How To Photograph Wildlife Ethically

Photographers have unprecedented tools, opportunities, and reach to find their animal subjects. At the same time, wild animals are facing unprecedented threats to their survival due to habitat loss, climate change, the illegal wildlife trade, overfishing, and pollution, noted wildlife photographer, writer, and conservationist Melissa Groo in a recent National Geographic essay explaining how to photograph animals ethically. We excerpted the essay on Monday.


3.  Celebrating the Heritage of Afro Hair Styles

Husband-and-wife photography duo Regis and Kahran Bethencourt of Atlanta-based CreativeSoul Photography have created an inspiring series with images of children that celebrate the beauty, culture, and heritage of afro hairstyles. “Often dressed in ornate African-inspired garb, Black girl and boy models are crowned with afros, twists, and braids as symbols of strength and grace,” noted Colossal. The “AfroArt” series began when the photographers noticed a lack of diversity in the industry.


4. How Albert Dros Fell in Love With Kyrgyzstan

Dutch photographer Albert Dros first visited Kyrgystan in 2018 because, he noted recently at My Modern Met, that’s where his girlfriend is from. “Last year I visited her family for the first time and since then I’ve already visited the country two more times. But it’s obviously not only my girlfriend’s roots and her family that keeps me coming back,” he said. Largely untouched by tourism, Kyrgyzstan gives Dros a clean slate from which to work. “By moving into this uncharted territory, he’s free to explore his artistry without fear of replicating what’s been done before,” noted MMM.


5. They Photographed Woodstock

Fifty years on, the world is marking the anniversary of the Woodstock music festival, which unfolded amid rain and love and psychedelics on Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York. Recently, we noted, Time magazine talked with photographers who were there about their experience and the images they shot that still move them. Meanwhile, the Morrison Hotel Gallery is featuring the exhibition "Woodstock: 3 Days That Lasted 50 Years.” On top of everything else, a never-seen treasure trove Woodstock photos has emerged.
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At top: From Albert Dros

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