William Eugene Smith (1918-1978) was born in in Wichita, Kansas. He took his first photographs at the age of fifteen for two local newspapers. In 1936, Smith entered Notre Dame University in Wichita, where a special photographic scholarship was created for him. A year later he left the university and went to New York City, and after studying with Helene Sanders at the New York Institute of Photography, in 1937 he began working for News-Week (later Newsweek). He was fired for refusing to use medium-format cameras and joined the Black Star agency as a freelancer.
Smith worked as a war correspondent for Flying magazine (1943-44), and a year later for Life. He followed the island-hopping American offensive against Japan, and suffered severe injuries while covering the battle of Okinawa in 1945, which required him to undergo surgery for the next two years.
In 1947, toward the end of his painful convalescence, he took his first photograph since his injury. Entitled The Walk to Paradise Garden, this view of his own children entering a forest clearing became one of his most famous photographs. It concluded the landmark photographic exhibition, The Family of Man, which Edward Steichen organized for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955.
Smith returned to work for Life in 1947 and became president of the Photo League in 1949. During this period he began a series of outstanding photo-essays, including the psychologically penetrating Country Doctor (1948). Another series, Spanish Village (1951), contains many of his most memorable images. Other important photo-essays include Nurse Midwife (1951) and Man of Mercy (1954), which portray two people, a backwoods midwife and Dr. Albert Schweitzer, respectively, dedicated to easing the suffering of others.
Smith’s last great photo-essay, Minamata (1975), deals with the residents of a Japanese fishing village who suffered poisoning and gross disfigurement from the mercury wastes of a nearby chemical company.
In 1977, a year after moving to Tucson to teach at the University of Arizona, Smith died of a stroke. His archives are held by the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. Today, Smith's legacy lives on through the W. Eugene Smith Fund to promote humanistic photography, founded in 1980, which awards photographers for exceptional accomplishments in the field.