The way photographs register in the minds of viewers is unique to each viewer, but by controlling the order of the images, a compelling series can still guide viewers down a specific path. A celebrated photo essay that is very effective at doing this is “The Country Doctor”, a sequence captured by acclaimed photographer W. Eugene Smith, who shot it while on assignment for Life magazine in 1948.
The assignment sounds relatively straightforward: Smith documents Dr. Ernest Guy Ceriani, a general practitioner who provided around-the-clock medical care to the residents of a small town in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. But “The Country Doctor,” is, in fact, a landmark in the genre of the photo essay. Smith’s powerful narrative structure in “The Country Doctor” was unprecedented. That’s because Smith infused complexity and psychological depth into the traditional documentary photo-essay format, giving it a kind of pictorial human drama that had never been achieved before.
But what’s also important to note is that Smith felt the sequence of images was as paramount to portraying his subjects as any single image could be, and often sparred with his editors over how his pictures were laid out. In 1954, fed up with the treatment of his images at Life, he actually resigned as staff photographer over this very issue.
But for the “Country Doctor” assignment, Smith spent four weeks photographing his subjects. The following are some of Smith’s thoughts on his process as he created a series: “I bear in mind that I have an opener and closer. Then I make a mental picture of how to fill in between these two. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I’ll lie in bed and do a sketch of the pictures I already have. Then I’ll decide what pictures I need. In this way, I can see how the job is shaping up in the layout form…. Each night, I would mark the pictures that I took, or record my thoughts, on thousands of white cards I had. I would start roughing in a layout of what pictures I had and note how they build and what was missing in relationships.”
In a way, you can compare Smith’s way of working to that of a playwright. And, indeed, “The Country Doctor” unfolds like a play comprising several acts, with Dr. Ceriani as the heroic main character. It begins and ends with portraits that could easily be likened to soliloquies (a dramatic device when characters talk to themselves on stage, revealing their innermost thoughts): The first shows the steadfast doctor under a threatening sky walking to perform surgery and the last depicts him exhausted and pensive, post-surgery, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee.
Click on the following links to see some of Smith’s images from “The Country Doctor” and learn more about Smith at Magnum Photos:
It’s also instructive to read what Smith, ever the realist, said about concluding images:
I have personally always fought very hard against ever packaging a story so that all things seem to come to an end at the end of a story. I always want to leave it so that there is a tomorrow. I suggest what might happen tomorrow—at least to say all things are not resolved, that this is life, and it is continuing.
In essence, Smith asks his viewers to participate in the conclusion by allowing them to imagine what tomorrow might bring. In doing so, he keeps his viewers engaged, and that is—above all—what a compelling sequence does.