Research notes – Country Doctor

The following comments are made after looking at the photo essay Country Doctor, photographed by W. Eugene Smith and first published by LIFE magazine in 1948. The essay, together with accompanying text and additional photographs were found in Time’s website (1)

The essay contains photographs taken by W. Eugene Smith chronicling the life and work of Ernest Ceriani, a country doctor working in a small Colorado town, during a period of 23 days. The photographs, which are all in black and white and were cropped to different sizes (possibly because of the way they originally fitted in the printed magazine), are all accompanied by a descriptive caption. It is not clear if the captions were written by Smith or the editors at LIFE, but they provide first hand information on what is going on at the time each picture was taken. Hence, the photographer must have provided, at least, a description of the situation to the editors. A facsimile reproduction of how the essay looked in the original publication can be found here (2)

As a whole, the images together with the captions provide a coherent account of what is like to be the only doctor in a small town, with a sampler of some of the cases he has to attend to and evidence of how his work affects his personal life. The captions seem to have been slightly romanticized or adapted to fit a certain value narrative that may be attuned to the editorial stance of the magazine or the photographer’s views. The themes of personal sacrifice, devotion to work and stoicism in the face of adversity are repeated throughout the text, alongside more subtle remarks underpinning other traditional Western values such as individualism and freedom. Looking at photograph number 7 in the series (link), for instance, the caption talks about Ceriani making less money as a rural GP than if he had pursued a specialist career in the city, nevertheless this seems to be acceptable to him because, among other things, “he is his own boss”.

The pictures themselves are quite dramatic in terms of angle of view, lighting and composition (see for instance this and this as an example. The latter image was not published by the magazine). W Eugene Smith manages to capture scenes which are quite intimate in a way that looks like he is not there. One of the captions mentions that Smith first accompanied the doctor with film-less cameras in order to allow him and his patient getting used to seeing Smith taking pictures. The result is a higher level of intimacy that we would expect to see from images taken by an outsider in just over three weeks.

As a contemporary observer, I have mixed feelings about this essay. The whole process feels slightly contrived and it is hard to ascertain how much of the final selection, presentation and accompanying text was controlled by the photographer himself, rather than LIFE’s editorial team. Was Smith comfortable about this? Would the end result be any different if he had done the series as a book in which he had more control over the process? My understanding is that he took in the region of 2000 photographs for this assignment, yet only 28 were published by the magazine (less than 2%). Some of the stories (like for instance the one about the patient with the gangrenous leg, images 18-20 in the sequence) are left inconclusive in the magazine article. The captions suggested the patient may be too old or frail to survive the amputation procedure, but an unpublished photograph (number 30 in the sequence) taken after the operation suggest that the patient may have survived the procedure. The selection seems to have been made to maximise impact and suspense, which is probably adequate for a medium like a magazine, but left me wondering if the original material could have been put to better use.

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(1) Time.com. (2017). W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’. [online] Available at: http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ [Accessed 3 Aug. 2017].

(2) W Eugene Smith ‘Country Doctor’ Life magazine-Kremmling Colorado- 1948- Slightly out of Focus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.slightly-out-of-focus.com/W_Eugene_Smith_Doctor.html. [Accessed 04 August 2017].

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