W. Eugene Smith was fifteen years old when he began to make photographs in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and to contribute them to the local newspaper. After studying photography on scholarship from 1936 to 1937 at the University of Notre Dame, he went to New York and worked on the staff of Newsweek until 1938. He then freelanced for the Black Star Agency and many national picture magazines.
In 1939 Smith began a long association with Life, the magazine that published some of his most admired photo essays. During World War II, from 1942 to 1945 he was a war correspondent for Popular Photography and Life. In 1945 he was badly wounded in Okinawa and spent two years recuperating. His first photograph made after his recovery was of his two young children walking into a sunlit open space from a shaded trail. Titled A Walk to Paradise Garden, it is one of his most life-affirming and well-known images. In 1955 Edward Steichen used it as the last image in his famous Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. That same year Smith became a staff member of the noted photographic agency Magnum.
Smith came to Pittsburgh to photograph for Stefan Lorant's classic book Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. "I was looking for the best," Lorant said. "I saw Gene Smith's Spanish Village essay in Life and knew he was the man to capture the spirit of Pittsburgh. "Smith referred to his Pittsburgh photographs as his "long poem called Pittsburgh," and Lorant described them as "an act of love." Smith produced more than 10,000 negatives for the project, which occupied him on and off for over two years. He was supported by two Guggenheim fellowships. (In 1968 he was awarded a third Guggenheim, one of the few photographers to receive this distinction.) Smith considered the Pittsburgh project the grandest experiment of his career. A departure from his previous work, it was markedly more personal and had greater scope than his earlier essays.
Smith's other well-known photo stories include "The Country Doctor," "Spanish Village," "Nurse Midwife," and "Man of Mercy" (a profile of Albert Schweitzer in Africa). Smith's last project, "Minamata," focused on the effects of industrial mercury poisoning on a Japanese fishing village. Through this essay, Smith manifested his belief in the social responsibility of the photographer and his intense compassion for his subjects. "To cause awareness is our only strength," he wrote. Smith believed strongly in the photographer's right to exercise editorial control over the layout and text of his work that appeared in publication, a stand that often put him at odds with his editors. He was deeply concerned with the aesthetics of his photographs in terms of craftsmanship, form, and content. He wrote, "I am constantly torn between the attitude of the conscientious journalist who is a recorder and interpreter of the facts and of the creative artist who often is necessarily at poetic odds with the literal facts." John Szarkowski, former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote that "Gene Smith was perhaps the photographer who tried most heroically to make the magazine photostory meet the standards of coherence, intensity, and personal accountability that one expects from a work of art."
In addition to magazine work, Smith exhibited widely and taught at the New School for Social Research and the School of Visual Arts in New York and at the University of Arizona, Tucson. An archive of his work is housed at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.