In the Darkroom with W. Eugene Smith
November 20, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
In early March of 1955, W. Eugene Smith steered his overstuffed station wagon into the steel city of Pittsburgh. He’d been on the road all day, leaving that morning from Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where he lived in a large, comfortable house with his wife and four children, plus a live-in housekeeper and her daughter. He was thirty-six, and a fuse was burning inside him. He had recently quit Life, after a successful but troubled twelve years, and joined Magnum, and this was his first freelance assignment. He had been hired by renowned filmmaker and editor Stefan Lorant to shoot a hundred scripted photographs for a book commemorating Pittsburgh’s bicentennial, a job Lorant expected to take three weeks. On Smith’s horizon, however, was one of the most ambitious projects in the history of photography: he wanted to create a photo story to end all photo stories. His station wagon was packed with some twenty pieces of luggage, a phonograph, and hundreds of books and vinyl records—he was prepared for an eruption.
A hundred and eighty miles southwest of Pittsburgh, in Athens, Ohio, James Karales was finishing up a degree in photography at Ohio University. He had studied Smith’s work in class; Smith was a hero. While Smith was crawling all over Pittsburgh, day and night, several cameras wrapped around his neck, fueled by amphetamines, alcohol, and quixotic fevers, Karales was getting his diploma. Little did Karales know, his path and Smith’s were about to become one, and he would get an education no college could provide.
Smith returned to Croton in late August with about eleven thousand negatives. Lorant was livid. Where were the hundred scripted photos he had hired Smith to make? Lorant pressured Magnum’s executive editor, John Morris, but Smith wouldn’t release anything. He was paranoid Lorant would try to take ownership of his intended masterwork. (Smith eventually sought and received a copyright from the Library of Congress to protect himself.)
Meanwhile, Karales, fresh out of school, had moved to New York to seek work as a professional photographer. He knocked on Magnum’s door and asked Morris whether there was any work for a young photographer. “Do you want to be Gene Smith’s darkroom assistant?” Morris replied.
Karales took a train to Croton that same day. He moved into one of the Smith family’s guest bedrooms. There were now four adults and five children living under one roof, and one of the adults was a man possessed. It was like asking a new film-school graduate to help Francis Ford Coppola complete Apocalypse Now, a project that almost killed the director and alienated everybody around him.
Forty years later I visited Karales, who was still living in Croton with his wife, Monica. (He died in 2002.) In the interim years he had become a world-class photojournalist in his own right, a staff photographer for Look magazine, producing some of the most iconic photographs of the civil-rights era and the Vietnam War as well as powerful portraits of a small town in Ohio, Rendville, and of the Lower East Side, among others. Karales drove me around town and showed me the Smith house on Old Post Road, musing on the experience while my tape recorder ran.
“Gene thought I was an idiot when I first met him,” said Karales, chuckling. “I told him I’d just graduated from Ohio University. He thought I hadn’t gone through the sixth grade! But I was pretty naïve. I came from an immigrant family, and I didn’t read much. And here I am, up there with this bloody genius. It just opened my life up completely. The reason he was nice to me is he needed me. Thank God that relationship existed, because otherwise, shit, I’d have been living down on the street someplace.”
Smith went back to Pittsburgh and exposed another ten thousand negatives, bringing the total to twenty-one thousand. Karales stayed in Croton and made prints. Smith considered two thousand negatives to be valid for his opus, an impossible number given his idiosyncratic printing technique. Certain prints required a few days to make, said Karales. The pair made dozens of 5 x 7 work prints for each negative, testing and experimenting until Smith was satisfied. Then they would make an 11 x 14 master print. This process lasted three years.
“We went through a lot of [emulsion] paper,” Karales remembered, “because Gene didn’t do what you’d call a script. A script didn’t mean anything to him, not when he was shooting or when he was printing. He wanted to see the whole thing, and see what areas needed to be worked on as he was going along. We went through boxes of paper, believe me. We bought two hundred and fifty sheets at a time. Before this, I never knew what you could do in a darkroom. At least fifty percent of the image is done in the darkroom—I think Gene would say ninety percent. The negative has the image, but it can’t produce the image completely, as the photographer saw it—not as Gene saw it. You have to work it over and over with the enlarger, you have to burn it in, you have to hold back areas—this detail down here or over there.”
Karales continued, getting more specific about the technique: “Gene always liked to get separations around people, figures, and that was always done with potassium ferrocyanide. It was the contrast that made the prints difficult. Gene saw the contrast with his eyes, but the negative wouldn’t capture it the same way. So he would have to bring the lamp down and burn, and then if that spilled too much exposure and made it too dark, you would lighten it with the ferrocyanide. You had to be careful not to get the ferrocyanide too strong, and yet you couldn’t have it too weak, either. If it took too long, it would spread. So I would blow the fixer off of the paper so ferrocyanide would stay in an area, and then dunk the paper right away to kill the action. Or if you wanted something to go smoother, then you left the fixer there. It was extremely delicate and complicated, but we got it down pat.”
Smith received two successive Guggenheim fellowships to help pay for the work, but he had given up a much larger salary and expense account at Life. The family was destitute; tensions in the house grew. Smith and Karales worked while the family slept. “We’d usually get up around two, three o’clock in the afternoon,” said Karales, “have lunch, and start printing. Then the family would go to bed, and when they got up, we went to bed.”
Once enough prints were made, Smith began arranging them in layouts all over the house. “He first started in the dining area, and when he ran out of room, we had to go into the living room area. He bought eight-foot-by-five-foot panels—bulletin boards that stood on legs, so you got both sides. And then all these 7 x 7s would be pinned up there, and he would look at them and study them and make sure which ones he wanted in his essay. And then we would make the prints, the final 11 x 14 prints.
“Gene believed you can have a picture that’s really powerful, but if it doesn’t fit within the layout, in the storytelling situation, then you don’t use that picture. One time, after I got the job at Look, he laid one of my stories out for me, the Selma March stuff, before I showed it to the magazine. In Look, the art director used my iconic Selma picture first. Gene used it in the middle somewhere, which would have made more sense. It was amazing what he did with the pictures, with their sequential situation. Gene got me that job at Look, by the way. I think that was my payment for helping him. He never paid me in money.”
Smith finally answered his obligation to Lorant, but his Pittsburgh magnum opus fizzled in an erratic layout he published in Popular Photography’s Photography Annual in late 1958. In a letter to Ansel Adams, he called it a “debacle” and a “failure.”
“Desperate,” as Karales described him, Smith retreated to a Manhattan flower-district loft. Karales lived for another two years in the Smith house before finding his own place in Croton.
A significant legacy of Smith’s Pittsburgh project was the apprenticeship of the young Karales. He came from the last generation of photographers whose childhood and youth were not informed by the takeover of television, when printed pictures served as culture’s primary visual imagery. A modest, unassuming man until his passing, Karales never climbed the ladder of fame, didn’t seem to care about it. He just did his job. His ethic and personality seemed more like that of a carpenter or refrigerator repairman than a gallery-hopping artist, making him perfect for the job with Smith—just put your head down and make prints, pal, and make them like this. For the rest of his career, Karales displayed a profound, velvety darkroom printing technique reminiscent of Smith’s. Karales, though, wasn’t trying to change the world. Maybe Smith could have learned a little something from him.
Sam Stephenson is at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. His 2009 book, The Jazz Loft Project, won an ASCAP Deems Taylor award.
Karales’s work is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery, in New York, through December 14. Steidl will publish a career-spanning monograph later this year.
All photographs copyright Estate of James Karales, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.