Country Doctor a Photo Essay by W. Eugene Smith

What's up photography fans, Martin here from all about Street Photography Channel and today, I am going to talk about a photo essay Country Doctor by W. Eugene Smith. I am going to take a closer look at the story behind some photographs and if you are not familiar with W. Eugene Smith, make sure to check my previous video about his life and photography.

In 1948, it was commissioned by Life Magazine, Smith spent 23- days with Dr. Ernest Ceriani and produced a photo essay about Colorado’s country doctor.

Now, as I have already mentioned in my previous video about Smith, he was called “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay.” He was known to shoot projects so large that they cannot be displayed in any museum as they usually contain tens of thousands of images. The most known and important ones are, for example, Minamata Japan or the Pacific War.

It is important to understand that in this photo essay, the country doctor was created in post-war, pre-television, pre-internet times, and magazines such as Life were very important for people to get information. Life Magazine had about 20-million readers at that time.

In 1948 National Health Service was launched in England, so the health care could no longer be exclusive only to those who could afford it. American Medical Association was concerned about the general practitioners and their future in the US as the medical schools were pushing their graduates into specializations rather than general practice. It was also more lucrative as specialization brought a higher potential income. Doctors with high specialization were also more likely to move to bigger cities even though a lot of people still lived in the rural areas.

“Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes one photograph, or a group of them, can lure our sense of awareness.”
- W. Eugene Smith

Looking for the support of private general practice American Medical Association contacted Colorado medical society, and they recommended Dr. Ceriani as he was young, photogenic and most suitable as a subject for a strong statement to support general practice and get publicity. The goal of the essay was to attract young students of medical schools to become general practitioners.

Dr. Ernest Ceriani settled in Kremmling, Colorado after leaving the hospital in Denver since he didn't like the busy and bureaucratic hospital. The population of Kremmling, Colorado was something about 650 people (Even though some sources talk about 2000 people). When Smith met Dr. Ernest Ceriani, it was just one year after Ceriani settled in Kremmling and they were both of the same age

Smith photographed Dr. Ceriani in all types of situations when working, when not working, his personal life, together with patients and even during operations. This is a beautiful photo of Dr. Ceriani on the way to visit his patients.

Dr. Ceriani on the way to visit his patients, W. Eugene Smith, Kremmling, Colorado, 1948   ©The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith / ©Magnum Photos

Dr. Ceriani on the way to visit his patients, W. Eugene Smith, Kremmling, Colorado, 1948

©The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith / ©Magnum Photos

Dr Ceriani resting on an operating table. Kremmling, Colorado, USA. 1948. W. Eugene Smith  ©The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith / ©Magnum Photos

Dr Ceriani resting on an operating table. Kremmling, Colorado, USA. 1948. W. Eugene Smith

©The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith / ©Magnum Photos

Dr. Ceriani worked long and hard as we can see in this photo that Smith took when he was sleeping on an operating table.

Dr. Ceriani resting in his kitchen, W. Eugene Smith, Kremmling, Colorado, 1948   ©The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith / ©Magnum Photos

Dr. Ceriani resting in his kitchen, W. Eugene Smith, Kremmling, Colorado, 1948

©The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith / ©Magnum Photos

It is hard to imagine today, that you would visit your doctor and he would be with a photographer taking pictures of you while you are being taken care of. It was actually a hard thing for Dr. Ceriani to introduce him to the patients and explain why he was there. Smith was actually following his every movement and Ceriany said himself it didn't take long until he started to ignore him. This one is probably one of the most well know photograph catching Dr. Ceriani smoking with a cup of coffee exhausted. This photo was taken after his patients a woman and her child unfortunately both died, and he could not do anything about it.

"He would always be present. He would always be in the
shadows. I would make the introduction and then go about my business as if he were just a door knob"
- Dr Ernest Ceriani

The photo essay was a huge success, and Dr. Ceriani became kind of a celebrity, the story was revisited several times, and he even got invited to TV shows and radio. Dr. Ceriani spent his whole professional life in Kremmling. He died at the age of 72. Life Magazine was very happy about it. It was an insight in the work of a practitioner that had never been seen before until then.

Smith was a very critical of himself and his work. He even said: ”I don't really like hearing compliments about it. I have stopped looking at it because I see so many defects every time I look at it. It could have been done much better.” He also wasn’t happy about the layout Life Magazine picked to present the photos with. This is actually typical for Smith as he was almost never satisfied with the way his photos were presented. According to him, the order of the photographs was as important as each individual photo. Life Magazine actually published about 30- photos out of the 200 photos Smith Selected. In 1954, Smith left Life Magazine after another disagreement over edits of his essay and joined Magnum the year after.