Text written by Tony Hayden expressly for Masters of Photography.
It was at the University of Oregon that I, along with a small group of photographers, took a short course from W. Eugene Smith. This was offered through the school's School of Journalism. Smith was staying in a motel near the campus and he invited us into his digs on most evenings to show him our photos. He was most generous and encouraging with his comments.
Even before I knew who he was I had always marveled at his work and was fortunate to see it closely at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as several of his photographs were included in "The Family of Man" exhibit.
At the Woodstock Festival in August of 1969 I was taking a general crowd scene photograph by the side of a road when I saw Smith through my viewfinder. He had just driven into the photo and parked his car alongside of the road. I couldn't quite believe it, because the New York freeway was jammed up. Somehow he had made it through. I walked up to him, with a Leica M-3 around my neck, and he remembered me from Oregon. He had just got to Woodstock after spending some time photographing Bob Dylan in New York City.
We spent the afternoon of the first day together walking around and taking photos. I was at Woodstock with some friends from the underground newspaper that we worked for in New Orleans. We ran into Millie, one of the writers, and the three of us had a simple lunch provided by Ken Kesey's Hog Farm in the middle of a green pasture. Smith seemed very sympathetic with the peace movement of that time and, I think, felt right at home at Woodstock.
He could create a space for himself to give himself the freedom to take photographs. He was so humble that he could melt into the camera, be the camera and be a part, and subject, of whatever he chose to photograph.
I had heard through Jim Hughes that Smith's daughter was at the Woodstock Festival but I don't think that they connected. Hughes wrote "Shadow and Substance ", a biography of Smith that is excellent reading.
There was a lot of magic at Woodstock. Some of it was probably the anarchic aspect, yet the citizens of Woodstock respected one another, including the police. National Guard jets roaring over the scene casting an immense peace sign with the vapor trails, "high in the sky". So much music and famous performers and so much rain and so many people. Many shamans and spiritual healers were there, true gypsies. It was true for me and having an afternoon with W. Eugene Smith, my photographic idol, was a huge personal magic.
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