W. Eugene Smith: ‘Walk to Paradise Garden’

Walk to Paradise Garden has taken on an almost mythic status in the history of photography. Taken on a spring day in 1946, the photograph depicts W. Eugene Smith’s children, Pat and Juanita, holding hands as they walk into a clearing in the undergrowth of their garden.

In 1944, Smith returned to the United States having been injured covering the fighting in the Pacific during World War II. He spent the next two years undergoing complex surgeries and rehabilitations to remove the shrapnel that had been lodged in his skull and left hand. Still suffering from pain at the time the photograph was taken, Smith was in a ‘spiritual crisis,’ not knowing, as he put it, whether he would ever be able to take a photograph that ‘mattered’ again. He struggled even to load the film into his camera, but as he watched his children ahead of him he “became acutely sensitive to the lines forming the scene and to the bright shower of light pouring into the opening and spilling down the path.” Pat noticed something in the clearing ahead, and grabbing his sisters hand they hurried forward to investigate. Smith has described the moment of epiphany that came with taking the image, “I suddenly realised that at this moment, in spite of everything, in spite of all the wars… I wanted to sing a sonnet to life and to find the courage to go on living it.”

The photograph he took that day has become one of his best-known works despite its contrast in theme and style to the photojournalism that was the focus of his photographic work. Smith was contracted to LIFE magazine throughout the 1930s and 1940s, as well as taking assignments for other publications, and after being posted to the Pacific during World War II he covered fighting in Guam, Saipan and Okinawa. The gritty realities of war are depicted in Smith’s photographs of dead soldiers lying in the mud and civilians caught up in the chaos of battle. Deeply distrustful of dishonest journalism, since the miss-representation of his father’s suicide in 1936, Smith determined to photograph with a brutal honesty; his images of combat stand as powerful testaments to the horrors of war.

Walk to Paradise Garden cemented its reputation in photographic history when Edward Steichen selected it as the final image in his monumental exhibition The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1955. The aim of the exhibition was to present the universal experiences of human existence and the essential goodness of the human experience. Steichen relied heavily on the photograph’s symbolism of hope and innocence to convey the humanist message of the exhibition.

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