Every time I decide not to renew my subscription to American Photo magazine, it publishes something that stops me in my tracks. This time, it's a story by a dead man.
The man is the brilliant, complicated, self-destructive W. Eugene Smith, and the story is a never-before-published piece about a photo shoot with Charlie Chaplin, that he did for Life magazine, in 1952. The occasion was the filming of Chaplin's movie "Limelight."
W. Eugene Smith: Actor Charlie Chaplin at dressing room mirror giving himself a wide grin as a clown on set of his film "Limelight." 1952. © Time Inc. (Click directly on any of the photos to see larger versions.)
American Photo's layout is beautiful. It includes the photos that I'm showing here -- and several more -- plus, as I've said, Smith's account of the time that he spent on the set.
Smith talks about the way that he created the photo essay, starting with "a breakdown, very similar perhaps to an author's outline for a play, so that I can start fitting the photographs into the form the story will eventually take...."
He also writes about the cameras that he used. He did most of his shooting with six --yes, six -- Leicas, fitted with different lenses -- 28mm, 2 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 105mm. This was well before zoom lenses became commonplace, and he needed this variety to "reach out [to] various distances... or [to] secure different perspectives."
W. Eugene Smith: Director and actor Charles Chaplin laughing raucously, as he rolls around on floor gleefully during filming of "Limelight." 1952. © Time Inc.
Mostly, however, he talks about his sense of failure (despite spending five weeks on the shoot). When it appeared in Life, the photo essay was well received, but Smith thought that it was "one of my poorest, and because of this, I was even more repulsed" by its success.
As Smith saw it, he was unable to overcome two big obstacles. First, he didn't connect personally with Chaplin. As he put it, he couldn't "establish the right understanding between us...."
Second, he couldn't stage-manage the shoot as he usually did when he was in the field. He wrote a letter to his mother -- not mentioned by American Photo-- in which he said that having to defer to Chaplin frustrated him. He was, he said, always "on the edge of things, unable to take over to set things right photographically...." (Quoted in Ben Maddow, Let Truth Be the Prejudice: W. Eugene Smith: His Life and Photographs.)
W. Eugene Smith: Charlie Chaplin on the set of "Limelight." 1952. © Time Inc.
It's true that Smith's account of the Chaplin shoot has never been published before -- not in its entirety -- but it's well known to folks who are interested in photo history. Ben Maddow quotes large chunks of it in his 1985 biography of Smith, Let Truth Be the Prejudice, that I cited above.
Maddow spends a couple of pages talking about the Chaplin shoot and agrees with Smith that it wasn't particularly good, saying that it's nothing more than "a technically competent record of a film in production."
Well, maybe. And maybe not. It seems to me that the essay deserves more credit than either Smith or Maddow were willing to give it. It certainly included some stunning photos. And, according to Margery Smith, Eugene's long-time companion, who was with him on the shoot, "He was in great spirits the whole time." He was, she said, "making pictures [that] I personally believe... are among his best." (Maddow, Let Truth Be the Prejudice.)
There's no doubt that there are reasons, beyond the quality of the photos, that account for Smith's grim view of the episode. Margery, for instance, thought that his ego was bruised:
"The real problem with the Chaplin story was that Gene never had a conversation with Chaplin. There was no relationship. ...The two personalities could not understand each other. They barely spoke! ...It's evident that Smith was, in Chaplin's view, simply one more still photographer on the set." (Maddow, Let Truth Be the Prejudice.)
Smith was also a perfectionist, to a dangerous degree. Maddow shines a brilliant light on this side of his personality:
"He had a passion not merely to be good but to be the best; and not merely to be the best but to be recognized as the best; and not merely to be recognized as the best but to be recognized over and over again. And this was the machine that drove him into bitter self-criticism, rewarded him with mistrusted fame, and repeatedly -- ironically -- poisoned his victory with a feeling of defeat. His self-joy and self-hatred were inextricable." (Maddow, Let Truth Be the Prejudice.)
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Thanks to Google Books, you can make up your own mind about the essay. The original Life article is, here. (The magazine text is not Smith's.)