W. Eugene Smith – Dr. Ceriani, 1948

Smack out of the golden age of the photojournalistic essay, Dr. Ceriani manages to maintain its power even removed from the framing of the magazine it was published in, the words around it gone. I want to think that what makes this photograph so poignant is that it essentially is a self portrait. Not in the absolutely literal way – Smith obviously was not a medical doctor, but in a somewhat metaphorical one. The concern on the doctor’s face mirrors the concern the photographer brought to his subjects, as does the closeness to the subject matter (for the doctor the injured child, for the photographer the doctor taking care of the injured child).

As a doctor you cannot help but be that immersed if you want to treat, possibly rescue, your patient. As a photographer, you could step back, but if you can’t help yourself you get close (Robert Capa’s dictum about picture quality corresponding to closeness to subject matter is mere machismo, though: Capa’s photographs always have a whiff of having been taken for effect in them, something Smith deftly managed to avoid almost all the time).

And if you want to be this close, you have go to be this good. The framing around the doctor is perfect (or expertly cropped – we have no way of knowing from the print alone), following the rules of the thirds closely. The helping hands at the bottom right corner of the frame are there, but they’re slightly out of focus. It’s all about the doctor and what he is doing.

Another one of the reasons why I think of this photograph as a self portrait is because the doctor’s attention is not on the child, at least not as far as his gaze is concerned. It’s not quite so clear what the doctor is focusing on, but whatever it is, it’s outside of the frame. We don’t know. We’re not shown. In much the same way, Smith’s photographs are as much about what they show as what they imply, what they don’t show, what’s outside those frames. There always is a balance going on (just like here): The photographic facts in the frames work with – hint at – all those facts, assertions, and ideas outside of the frame, often implicating the viewer in something: If you, dear viewer, could just get as engaged in this, we wouldn’t be in this situation, and the world would be a better place.

W. Eugene Smith was a true believer in what you could do with photographs and what it took to do that well. For that alone, he’s still missed (especially in a day and age where so much photojournalism is done for style and/or effect).

(this is one of the 100 pieces I wrote about each of the pictures in John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs)

Well written Jörg. Here’s the rest of the 40 or so photographs included in this photographic essay from 1948, Country Doctor. 

The last project I ever did at my previous company, The Future Well, was ideate and design the most popular iPad app for physicians, Omnio. When I was pitching the client the concept, I used this essay in our pitch deck as an emotional hook to argue that doctors no longer need a physical doctor bag, they need a virtual doctor bag in the form of an app. The clients bought into the idea, we got the job, designed the app, and now it’s a wild success. Amazing how a photograph can tell a story in so many different contexts.