How does Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?
W. Eugene Smith was an outsider trying to make his ‘inside’ presence unobtrusive and un-noticed. It was an objective, almost forensic examination by which Smith was ‘trying to find out what made the doctor tick’. Despite the obvious proximity to his subjects, one gets the feeling that Smith would have welcomed the option of making the photographs by remote control. Here Smith is the observer position, maybe dispassionate, maybe not, but the assertion made in Time Magazine summarises his intent thus:
“Eugene Smith’s at-times almost unsettlingly intimate pictures illustrate in poignant detail the challenges faced by a modest, tireless rural physician — and gradually reveal the inner workings and the outer trappings of what is clearly a uniquely rewarding life.” Time Magazine
Smith was very aware of the intrusive nature of the photographer but at the same time acknowledged that it was a requirement of his craft. He wrote to Albert Schweitzer before making his ‘Life’ photo essay:
Dear Dr Schweitzer, it is with considerable shyness that I write this letter for I dislike to intrude, unless welcomed, into the sanctuary of the privacy of another’s life. I humbly respect the right to privacy yet the nature of my communicative medium makes it necessary for me to seek, though never to force, access to a position close to those I would photograph.
William Eugene Smith: Photography Made Difficult,” School of Visual Arts. William Eugene Smith: Photography Made Difficult, 1989, Full Length – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aulz5efN2Pc&t=249s (accessed October 6, 2017).
We see Dr Ceriani working in makeshift circumstances, interacting very closely with his patients, but there are no images with viewer eye-contact. Only the photograph of the man having his gangrenous leg amputated shows his gaze and even then it’s not really an engagement with the photographer, more an analgesic thousand-yard stare. Accounts of the actual photography may exist but I have been unable to trace them. I think it’s reasonable to assume that Smith instructed people not to look at the camera where necessary. Despite the obvious closeness of the camera and photographer, all the subjects pretend that it is invisible. nobody looks out at us the viewer, nobody addresses us directly; we, like Smith wanted to be, are invisible observers. Dr Ceriani himself observed:
“‘He would always be present. He would always be in the shadows. I would make the introduction and then go about my business as if he were just a door knob’ Dr Ernest Ceriani ;Magnum Pictures
LIFE magazine published this photo-essay in the issue of 11th October 1948. It occupied eleven full pages with five double-spreads. Although the magazine carried advertisements none were placed within Smith’s work. The magazine was printing full colour by this time and this issue carried several colour features but Smith’s work remained in B&W. I expect this was an adherence to the documentary aesthetic which developed as a matter of necessity (no colour film).
The images in the essay are connected primarily by the presence of Dr Ceriani in most of the frames and in this way a visual narrative thread is established. Even without the captions and body text we could deduce many of the apparent facts:
- The story concerns the activities of one man who is performing the functions of a doctor
- He is seen interacting with different people who we can reasonably assume are his patients
- He seems to work mainly alone and outside a hospital setting – he is a general practitioner
- Even so his work involves major surgery, so clinical resources must be scarce
- He undertakes a wide variety of work, often in makeshift settings
The accompanying text fills in much more detail. We learn how tired he becomes, how even on a rare day off he is called back from a fishing trip to attend a child who has been kicked by a horse – he must arrange to remove her injured eye. The main thrust of the article is the almost heroic dedication and selfless commitment the doctor makes to his widely-scattered patients. The photographs emphasise the immediacy of the medical attention he provides, harshly lit, close-up detail adding to the drama.
Looking at the contents of the images reveals Smith’s photographic method. Some of the shadows appear so harsh they give the impression of bare-bulb flash. Although the settings are mainly interiors he has used a short enough shutter speed to eliminate most motion blur. Did he call for his subjects to ‘hold still’? Doubtful – he was doing his best to be as unobtrusive as possible. His framing cannot be judged from the printed work because most of the images appear to have been cropped to suit the page layout, but there seems to be method here. The frame edges intersect the bodies of the subjects, hinting at activity outside the frame and suggesting that Dr Ceriani is at the calm centre of a whirl of activity.
Most of the eyelines look natural and lead to believable content. In every case the doctor is shown as concentrating intensely on his work but given the time Smith spent with him and the number of exposures he must have made, this is probably due also to a strict editing decision.
Bryony Campbell’s work takes a quite different approach. We are given to understand from the outset that her essay is not just intimate but deeply personal. We as viewers are deputised to share her experience of her father’s illness. Once we understand that she is both photographer and subject we are harnessed to her emotions, as we too would experience the circumstances in which she finds herself. We know what it’s like or at least we can easily imagine.
Whatever the stated circumstances, Campbell is an insider. She herself is the story. She features herself in several photographs. She looks directly out to us making a connection which we can chooses to interpret as a challenge, an appeal for compassion, expression of empathy, whatever we want. We have the emotional responses readily to hand, the currency of loss having a unique exchange rate for us all. Her ‘ending without an ending’ is a cogent expression of a death within a continuing life, her father’s within her own. Her relationship with him did not end with his death, she recognises that it will continue through the rest of her life.
Campbell makes no attempt to arrange or manipulate the contents of her images, the slippers, bedclothes, all the paraphernalia of illness are shown just as she saw them. She uses available light and makes no attempt to adjust the colour casts it produces, which tends to infer an authenticity to the series. Where Smith chooses to shoot for drama, Campbell adopts a more ‘stilling’ approach, letting the contents speak for themselves.
These are two very different styles which are effective in their individual ways, but both are firmly placed in their contemporary aesthetic trends.
Time Magazine: W. Eugene Smith’s ‘Country Doctor’: Revisiting a Landmark Photo Essay | Time.com. http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ (accessed August 6, 2017).
Magnum Pictures: Dr Ernest Ceriani” Country Doctor • W. Eugene Smith • Magnum Photos. https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/society/w-eugene-smith-country-doctor/ (accessed August 6, 2017).