In 1948, Life magazine commissioned Smith to spend 23 days with Dr. Ernest Ceriani and produce a photo essay about Colorado’s country doctor.
Smith has been called “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay.” He was known to shoot projects so extensive that they cannot be displayed in any museum as they usually contain tens of thousands of images.
The Wichita, Kans.–born photographer spent weeks immersing himself in his subjects’ lives, from a South Carolina nurse-midwife to the residents of a Spanish village. His aim was to see the world from the perspective of his subjects—and to compel viewers to do the same.
“I do not seek to possess my subject but rather to give myself to it,” he said of his approach. Nowhere was this clearer than in his landmark photo essay “Country Doctor.” Smith spent 23 days with Dr. Ernest Ceriani in and around Kremmling, Colo., trailing the hardy physician through the ranching community of 2,000 souls beneath the Rocky Mountains. He watched him tend to infants, deliver injections in the backseats of cars, develop his own x-rays, treat a man with a heart attack and then phone a priest to give last rites. By digging so deeply into his assignment, Smith created a singular, starkly intimate glimpse into the life of a remarkable man. It became not only the most influential photo essay in history but the aspirational template for the form.
It’s important to understand that for this photo essay, the country doctor was shot 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.
“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