W.Eugene Smith Photo Essay

Although lauded for his war photography, W. Eugene Smith left his most enduring mark with a series of midcentury photo essays for LIFE magazine. The Wichita, Kans.–born photographer spent weeks immersing himself in his subjects’ lives, from a South Carolina nurse-­midwife to the residents of a Spanish village. His aim was to see the world from the perspective of his subjects—and to compel viewers to do the same. “I do not seek to possess my subject but rather to give myself to it,” he said of his approach. Nowhere was this clearer than in his landmark photo essay “Country Doctor.” Smith spent 23 days with Dr. Ernest Ceriani in and around Kremmling, Colo., trailing the hardy physician through the ranching community of 2,000 souls beneath the Rocky Mountains. He watched him tend to infants, deliver injections in the backseats of cars, develop his own x-rays, treat a man with a heart attack and then phone a priest to give last rites. By digging so deeply into his assignment, Smith created a singular, starkly intimate glimpse into the life of a remarkable man. It became not only the most influential photo essay in history but the aspirational template for the form.

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Dr. Ernest Ceriani, the subject of a 1948 Life magazine story titled "Country Doctor," pauses after a long surgery. W. Eugene Smith/Life hide caption

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W. Eugene Smith/Life

Dr. Ernest Ceriani, the subject of a 1948 Life magazine story titled "Country Doctor," pauses after a long surgery.

W. Eugene Smith/Life

"Although 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas only 9 percent of the nation's physicians practice there." That's according to a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In short, the study reads, "despite greater need for health care, rural residents have fewer visits to health care providers and are less likely to receive recommended preventive services."

Of course, that's just one study. Although, personally, I know I'd be a lot less inclined to see the doctor if walk-ins weren't available a few blocks away.

It makes sense that health care would be difficult to access in remote locations. You either have to move to the medicine, or it has to come to you. What kind of person does it take to be a country doctor? Here's one example, now almost 65 years old.

Photographer W. Eugene Smith became a war photographer for Life magazine in 1942. Though seriously wounded while photographing World War II, he returned to photojournalism and made a big splash with this 1948 photo essay about the life of Dr. Ernest Ceriani, a practitioner in the small town of Kremmling, Colo.

The result of 23 days with Ceriani, Country Doctor "was an instant classic," according to Life.com, where the original essay has just been republished in its entirety, "setting Smith firmly on a path as a master of the unique art form of the photo essay, and solidifying his status as one of the most passionate and influential photojournalists of the 20th century."

As it is today and likely always will be, health care was an important issue in 1948, and Life wanted to explore that issue by focusing on, as it were, a life. I'd be interested in seeing the life of a contemporary country doctor. Do you know any?

  • W. Eugene Smith/Life

    According to Life.com, Smith initially shot with an empty camera — to allow Dr. Ceriani get comfortable with his presence without wasting film.

  • W. Eugene Smith/Life

    Dr. Ceriani was the sole physician for an area of about 400 square miles — a population of about 2,000 people.

  • W. Eugene Smith/Life

    W. Eugene Smith had a reputation, as a photographer, for developing strong relationships with his subjects.

  • W. Eugene Smith/Life

    In this image, Dr. Ceriani helps a rancher carry his son into the hospital.

  • W. Eugene Smith/Life

    Out of some 2000 images shot by Smith, 28 were used in the final magazine edit.

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