W Eugene Smith and the Video Essay

Welsh Coal Miners by W Eugene Smith 1950

I spent this afternoon at a major New Jersey newspaper with Jeff Jarvis .

The paper, like many print publications in this country, is moving into video.

This is inevitable. As newspapers migrate to the web, driven by the pure economics of it, they run into a web that can tell stories in video.

The job of a newspaper is to go out into a community, gather stories and tell them to that community – for a price.

It is only natural that a newspaper would want to move to video, and many do (note Scott Anger at the LA Times).

The question is: how.

Many papers are taking small steps on their own.  They are trying to figure it out.  Some gravitate towards a TV model. Others post small video stories.

I think we are entering an entirely new world of online digital journalism. It isn’t television, it isn’t newspapers and photos either. It is something new.

The web is an extremely powerful and plastic medium for capturing information and storytelling. It works equally well in print, video, still, music, graphics and viewer participation.  Like any new technology, we have yet to really figure out what to do with it.  The day after Gutenberg invented the Printing Press, he could have gone down into the basement and printed The New York Times.  All the technology he needed to print a newspaper was now in his hands.  What was lacking was the model – the idea.

It would, in fact, take another 350 years before someone figured out how to make  The New York Times with Gutenberg’s invention.

Perhaps it will not take us that long this time.

In the 1940s, photojournalist W Eugene Smith was empowered with a small Leica, and the Second World War before him.  He used the camera in some very unusual ways. Instead of simply illustrating a story, as his photographic predecessors had done, Smith created for Henry Luce and LIFE, the photo essay – a way of telling stories with pictures first, text in support.  It was a brilliant breakthrough.

The photograph above, from Smith’s Welsh Miner series, was published in 1950.  Smith had been sent by LIFE to cover the British elections.  Henry Luce was supporting the Conservative candidate Winston Churchill.  But Smith’s photo essay showed the brutality of coal mining life and made a great deal of America sympathetic to Clement Atlee and Labour (with a ‘u’).  Labour won, but Smith had proven a larger point about the power of photo essays.  He later went on to publish powerful work for LIFE such as Country Doctor or Spanish Village. Icons of photojournalism today.

Smith was empowered by the new photographic technology.  Rather than using the small cameras to ape what had been done with the large format cameras, he created a new and highly visual way of telling stories in pictures – and made LIFE magazine the powerhouse it was in the 50s.

Now we have a new technology before us – small, light weight HDV video cameras.

As Smith did, we have a unique opportunity, particularly as newspapers (untainted by local TV news) move into video, to create a new grammar as well.

The tools are before us. We need only pick them up.


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