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Johnny Depp Stars as Photographer W. Eugene Smith in New Movie ‘Minamata’

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Johnny Depp and Minami in Minamata (2020)

Story of photographer W. Eugene Smith’s final photo essay Minamata told in a new Hollywood movie starring Depp

Full Podcast Transcript: Episode 34 of the Fine Art Photography Podcast

In this episode, photographer W. Eugene Smith and his Minamata work, receiving new attention thanks to a new Movie starring Johnny Depp as Smith.

Recently I posted about the Pete Souza movie, and how it’s so unusual to have a major Hollywood release about a photographer. Now, we have another, potentially even bigger marquee film — Minimata starring Johnny Depp. 

In some ways, Johnny Depp as W. Eugene Smith is a good fit — both very talented and yet complicated men; both harboring some demons.

W. Eugene Smith was a super-talented photographer, whose self-made darkroom prints were the envy of other photographers. He was obsessive and difficult to work with — often battling with the powers at LIFE Magazine, his long time client. 

He was a family man with five kids, who chose to abandon them in suburbia to pursue his work unencumbered in a ramshackle loft in the Flower District of Manhattan.

He was extremely famous in his day, but, often too broke to pay the rent on that same loft.

While at LIFE, Smith set the standard for excellence in photo essays — which were multiple page stories based around the images of one photographer. In fact, his 1948 series “Country Doctor” was probably the first extended photo essay published in LIFE.

In the loft, his obsessive behavior really came to fruition. He photographed street life from the windows of his loft. He began making photographs but also audio recordings of jazz musicians who began playing in a nearby room of the building. But he also recorded conversations, news reports, even the sounds in the stairwell outside his loft door. Sean O’Hagan, writing for The Observer, called Smith “a photographer who wanted to record everything.”

Smith spent hours in the darkroom, sometimes using an entire box of photo paper to perfect one print — that’s 250 sheets of photo paper. He was masterful with a bleaching technique that allowed him to pull selected bright highlights out of his otherwise dark prints. 

When his archives were sent to The Center for Creative Photography in Arizona, Smith sat in a wheelchair and watched as workers hauled away literally enough photographs, negatives, cameras and lenses, notebooks and other materials to fill a gymnasium. There were over 25,000 vinyl albums alone.

When Smith finally made a permanent split from LIFE in 1949, he became part of the famous Magnum photography collective, and for one of his first assignments, received a 1200 dollar assignment to make photographs of steel mills and other subjects in Pittsburgh. The artist planning the book expected to receive about 100 photographs. But Smith — again giving into his compulsions — shot at least 17,000 photographs, and I’ve heard it may have been as many as 22,000 total. Some of the photographs did get published in the book, and others were seen in Popular Photography. Smith believed he was creating the greatest photo project ever, but ultimately was unable to complete the project and considered it a failure.

Now to the the topic at hand, the Johnny Depp movie, is about Smith’s assignment in the 1970s to travel to Minamata Japan to document the disastrous impact of mercury pollution on the community. The Magnum page dedicated to the Minamata project says this . . .

“The Magnum photographer made his last photo essay about industrial mercury poisoning in the Japanese city of Minamata, helping to bring justice and visibility to the victims.”

Magnum Photo

The Chisso chemical factory in Minamata Japan had been releasing methylmercury through its industrial wastewater into Minamata Bay and ultimately the sea. The mercury accumulated in the local sea life, which was harvested in the nets of the fishermen, and ended up poisoning thousands of people. The corporation covered up research that proved their emissions were the cause of the poisonings, and the Japanese government was complicit. 

Smith and his wife rented a house from the family of one of the victims, sleeping literally in a room established as an altar to the deceased woman. His wife Aileen said they slept for three years with the woman’s photograph hanging over their heads. 

Smith got to know the victims and sought to share their plight as well as their humanity with the world, but as a journalist he also met with the Chisso corporation and attempted to understand their viewpoint. In a visit to the corporation’s factories, Smith was beaten severely by what Aileen has called a goon squad. She said her hair was pulled and other reporters were assaulted, but the goal was to hurt Smith. He was temporarily blinded in one eye, and suffered nerve damage that would cause a blackout if he raised his arm. In spite of pain, he continued to shoot using a cable release.

The result was a book called Minamata, as well as publication in LIFE Magazine in 1972. The photographs went on exhibition, helping raise the alarm worldwide, and ultimately assisted the victims in winning lawsuits against the Chisso corporation.

There’s an interesting backstory about the Minamata disaster. A young Japanese photographer who had studied Smith’s work in school spotted him in Japan and asked to be his assistant on the Minamata story. Ishikawa Takeshi spent the next three years working closely with Smith and his wife. He was able to witness and document Smith at work. Takeshi has said that everything he finds valuable in life, including a love of jazz, he learned from Smith. Takeshi also said that Smith taught him that photography is a “small voice” for social change.
Takeshi is quoted as saying,  “Back when I first ran into Eugene on the street, my ambition was to make a living taking photographs. Now, I’m always asking myself what I can do [for humanity] as a photographer.” — I just love that.

I’ve included a link in the description called “Minamata: Homage to W. Eugene Smith” if you’d like to read more about that relationship. The article includes photos of W. Eugene Smith in Japan, and follow-up photographs of some of the Minamata victims, all taken by Ishikawa Takeshi.

I haven’t seen the Depp movie as it hasn’t even been released yet as I record this, but he looks strikingly like W. Eugene Smith in the movie. And his performance is getting good early press. As I said when Pete Souza’s documentary was released in theaters a few months ago, it’s always exciting to me when a photographer is the hero of a major Hollywood movie.

That’s all I’ve got for this episode. Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe to get notified of future episodes — I’ll talk to you again real soon.

W. Eugene Smith’s book about the Minamata crisis

Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Chose to Carry the Burden of Courage. (1975), W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M. Smith

This is an Amazon link. I may earn a small commission on qualifying purchases.

Sources and Links

“A Masterpiece: W. Eugene Smith’s Photos of Pittsburgh,” Pittsburgh Magazine, Rick Sebak

Minamata: Homage to W. Eugene Smith

“W Eugene Smith, the photographer who wanted to record everything,” The Observer, Sean O’Hagan

“W. Eugene Smith’s Warning to the World”

Hosted by
Keith Dotson

Keith Dotson is a professional fine art photographer who specializes in black and white landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions from nature.

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