Photo Essay

December 17, 2009

cover-- While preparing a little presentation on Street Photography for our local Photo Salon, I uncovered a treasured issue of LIFE magazine in my archives. This particular issue (May 3, 1948) was mentioned in a 1980’s issue of American Photo magazine as being at the foundation of the photo essay as we know it today. I decided to digitize it to protect against the ravages of climate on paper. The Private Life of Gwyned Filling was shot by Leonard McCombe over a four-week period and I post it here for students of journalism and documentary photography. The page spreads are large (appx. 800×1200 pixels) so that pages may be scrolled and images examined.

In today’s world of “Jon & Kate plus 8″ and the whole lot of quasi-real “Reality Shows”, a photo essay like this seems quite tame, but 60 years ago such an imtimate look at the life of a stranger was unheard of and was offensive to many. New York Journal-American columnist Paul Gallico was taken aback at the intimacy of the photo spread. Commenting on the picture of her crying, he wrote, “Exposure of what purports to be a genuine emotional break-down experienced by a living person is a type of spiritual nudity that leaves me more than a little uncomfortable.”

Although photographers such as W. Eugene Smith were dabbling with photo essays such as this a few years earlier, Smith’s best work (Country Doctor, Spanish Village, Nurse Midwife, Man of Mercy, Minamata, etc.) lay ahead and may indeed have been influenced by McCombe’s pioneering “…Gwyned Filling”.

This 2003 interview with Gwyned offers insight into the making of the photo essay.

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