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Biography shows Smith's life through his own lens

W. Eugene Smith: Let Truth Be the Prejudice, by Ben Maddow. New York: Aperture. 240 pp. $50. Ralph Waldo Emerson's conviction that ``there is properly no history; only biography,'' seems especially sensible when applied to an artist like W. Eugene Smith, a man whose complexity and talent has rarely if ever been matched in the world of photography.

In his glory years, when he was producing photo-essays such as ``Country Doctor,'' ``Spanish Village,'' and ``Nurse Midwife'' for Life magazine in the late 1940s up until his resignation from that publication in 1954, Smith worked with almost unimaginable intensity and horribly abused his body with amphetamines and alcohol. But the results made him a legend.

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There was no one else like Smith, which was probably a good thing. He repeatedly threatened suicide; his mother lived with him until he was 37; he had many affairs; he was by many accounts a poor parent yet a fine teacher.

``He was always on a stage of his own construction,'' writes Ben Maddow in ``Let Truth Be the Prejudice,'' and he was the star, of course.

Smith's early years are largely unremarkable: Like most famous photographers, he started young with a camera. He moved to New York in 1937 at age 19, and within a few years began working for Newsweek.

During World War II he went to the Pacific Theater as a photographer, and ``his photographs of 1943 through 1945,'' says Maddow, ``show his swift development from talent into genius.''

His war photography almost ended his career and life as well. Smith was photographing a rifleman named Terry Moore on Okinawa for a piece on the life of an ordinary soldier when, Maddow writes, ``At four in the morning, May 22, 1945 . . . they met heavy mortar fire.

``The men took cover behind a rise; Smith, anxious to get a shot of Moore with a mortar explosion in the background, stood up with the Contax at his eye. A mortar burst close beside them, creating a fountain of metal fragments, a few of which struck Smith with terrible force.''

Smith didn't photograph for nearly a year after this because his hand (among other wounds) was so badly damaged. In fact, he almost gave up photography. But, of course, he soon went on to do his classic Life photo essays and after that such landmark essays as the Pittsburgh project and the mercury-poisoned town of Minimata, Japan -- the latter perhaps his finest work as a photojournalist.

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A demanding, egotistical, difficult man, Smith is hard to understand. He was plagued by financial problems, yet when his mother died and left him over $1 million in farmland -- land she had acquired foreclosing on farmers during the depression -- Smith immediately insisted on giving the land back to its former owners.

``Let Truth Be the Prejudice'' is an engaging if peculiar biography, for it appears that Maddow was overmatched by his subject and knew it. The writing is occasionally choppy, and on the last page of biographical text -- which is followed by 150-plus pages of fine reproductions of Smith's work, produced with Aperture's typical care -- appears the following remark:

``As one writes about Smith, affection alternates with pity; disgust for his exploitation of people who loved him alternates with admiration for his dark and glorious prints that were the product of this collaboration; and as one continues to write about him, the egotism of W. Eugene Smith takes over, page by page, and insists on writing its own strange account.''

To that end, Maddow quotes many of the hundreds of letters Smith wrote in his incendiary life. Because of this, a strange transportation occurs, and we come to see Smith's life as he wanted us to see it.

We believe him when he claims that ``Madness is my rendezvous,'' but his imagery speaks of greatness.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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