Part 2 – Exercise 1 -W. Eugene Smith & Bryony Campbell

The brief for this exercise was to compare Bryony Campbell’s ‘The Dad Project’ with W.Eugene Smith’s ‘Country Doctor’…

Inherent in both series was the emphasis on a relationship between the photographer and subject, Campbell’s borne out of the years of being a daughter, and Smith’s, a relationship developed and nurtured into trust with the doctor and his patients, using a camera without film for a period of time prior to photographs being taken.  The strength of the relative relationships is apparent – Smith’s images retain a sense of a bystander’s view, whereas Campbell’s are intimate to the point of feeling somewhat intrusive.

1-dr-ernest-ceriani-makes-a-house-call-on-foot-kremmling-colo-1948Smiths’s narrative could be interpreted a depicting a typical day, the first image setting the scene with the doctor heading out in what looks like darkness, him appearing contemplative, possibly his mind laden with his concerns of the day ahead.
Dr Ernest Ceriani makes a house call on foot, Kremmling, Colo.. 1948

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Campbell’s opening image, coupled with the caption ‘The sunlight supported me this year’, merely hints at the story line to come, but it is much more oblique with no facts and it offers multiple possible interpretations, possibly reflecting the unknown journey that Campbell and her father were embarking on.

The LIFE captions supporting Smith’s images are overtly factual. They contain the names, ages, professions and relationships of the patients to other subjects in the photographs, down to exacting details of the nature of the accident and clinical condition that led to the patient having to receive a visit from the doctor.

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This image for example, is supported by the following:- In the backseat of a car, Dr Ceriani administers a shot of morphine to a 60 year old tourist from Chicago, seen here with her grandson who was suffering from a mild heart disturbance.
We even get written details that we can construe visually ourselves ‘in the backseat of a car’…

Campbell’s images and captions contain no clinical commentary. We don’t understand how long her father had been suffering with his condition, nor the levels of pain he was enduring, however the photographs somehow reveal much more detail physically, emotionally and spiritually. The intimacy she shares is almost explicit in its nature, even though the images are symbolic. The image below of the milkshake spillage is initially shocking as it’s not clear if the liquid is blood or something less innocuous – .. Once you read the caption as a viewer, you start to imagine the incident that led up to the spill and perversely it somehow becomes no less shattering to learn that it isn’t blood…

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Smith’s images could also well be stills from a film noire cinema film from the 40s. Blessed with a Hollywood looking, Bogart-esque, brooding, dark-haired and furrow-browed doctor, the photographer capitalises on the drama of each scene using his subject. The following images are representative of this dramatic photographic style which echo the visual style of the era in which they were taken…

Campbell’s style is altogether softer, with only the occasional hard edge to her photographs where the emotion is raw an unequivocal. She regularly includes images of herself with her emotions laid bare, but the compositions are hazy sometimes and obscure…We are far closer in tune with Campbell’s emotions via the images than we are with the doctor’s emotions which are distanced, perhaps stressing the sense of duty of his profession which doesn’t allow for sentimentality in any shape or form.

There is however a level of intimacy with the patients in Smith’s images. In particular, we learn the journey of 85 year old Thomas Mitchell who finally ended up having his leg amputated, and we learn of his fear as the subjects of the images shift between doctor and patient. This is essentially a mini series in itself and draws the viewer into continuing to read the narrative… the final image is somewhat bizarre as we surmise that the operation was a success, but we have no sense of how poor Mr Mitchell is after his ordeal, simply that it appeared to be quite a neat job!

Campbell’s images frequently refer to the banality of life and ultimately banality of death in her depiction of glasses, milk bottles etc. The repetition of these images in her series gives a sense of rhythm and how the days and weeks were ticking by, almost relentlessly…

Smith never refers to life being banal in any form.. the images are almost without exception dramatic to reinforce the doctor’s day going from one crisis to another:-

Campbell’s and Smith’s sense of composition is also very opposing: Campbell deliberately gives us fragments and snippets for us as a viewer to piece together like a jigsaw concentrating on parts of the body only, a photograph of fallen hairs. It’s almost she wants to catalogue and index all those details to preserve and commit every immaculate to her memory to ensure longevity of those details.

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Smith on the other hand wants to maximise the information he provides in every shot, scientifically so in the example of the contents of the doctor’s bag meticulously laid out in an ordered fashion, almost at odds with the rest of the narrative of the doctor’s chaotic day…

The symbolism in Campbell’s images tells us that she believes her story is not ending. In this photograph accompanied by the words ‘I photographed the end before I saw it’, she depicts her father as a very black dark figure ascending metaphorically into heaven. Whilst there is an eerie sense of foreboding with the white, unclear ghostlike hands and head, we are assured that Campbell’s faith harks into a belief that the relationship with her father is not ended, just changed, or reached another phase.

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I found both series equally interesting and visually satisfying in different ways. Smith’s series was interesting from the point of view of working in the NHS now and I made repeated wry comparisons to today’s focus on patient confidentiality and the continuous bleat of today’s clinicians being over-worked…

Campbell’s series was both magnetically poetic and simultaneously powerfully poignant to me from personal events in my own life this year, and elements brought back sometimes too painful and vivid a memory, such as the image of Campbell’s father in the ambulance.  I don’t believe anyone else’s reaction would be any less emotional. Campbell and her father opened up a window to life and death in this series which is often closed and shrouded in myth and mystery and they have provided an  overtly generous insight allowing others to prepare for inevitable events which happen in all our lives.

Sources

Campbell, B. (2009) The Dad Project At http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/  Accessed at 15/11/2016

Cosgrove, B. (2012) W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’ At http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ Accessed at 15/11/2016

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