Upon hearing of Jim Hughes’s sudden passing on December 18 in Maine, I immediately felt that the world of photography had lost a giant, someone who as a magazine editor helped to define the field in a previous, pre-digital era, and who as a biographer did much to define the life of one of the most outstanding photographers of the last century.
And, as one does in grief, I began to think of the time that I spent with Jim, particularly at Camera Arts magazine. Jim had founded the magazine in 1980, and by the time I joined the small staff two years later it had already become the first photography magazine to win the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. I had left a position as picture editor of the New York Times Magazine for the chance to become executive editor of a much smaller publication, but one that valued photography in all its manifestations. And I left the Times for the chance to work with Jim, a veteran editor of extraordinary integrity and judgment, who cared deeply not only about the photographs but also about the people who made the images, and the sophisticated design and writing that is necessary to contextualize them.
Fifteen years before, Jim had begun as editor of Camera 35 magazine, where he published work from projects by photographers such as Larry Clark (“Tulsa”), Ralph Gibson (“The Somnambulist”), and Aileen and W. Eugene Smith (“Minamata”), all before these images were widely seen and later appreciated as landmark books. These were the days before the explosion of all things photographic – exhibitions, festivals, books, print sales and schools — when work in color was still relatively rare and there were not, in this analog time, the billions of images being uploaded daily. In fact, the year that I joined Camera Arts magazine was when National Geographic’seditors digitally manipulated a cover photograph of the pyramids of Giza, which would usher in the profoundly different moment in which we now live.
As one way to remember Jim I randomly picked up a March 1983 issue of Camera Arts from my bookshelves, with a color photograph of Marlon Brando by Mary Ellen Mark on its cover. I soon found Jim’s editor’s note in which he comments on the work of Eugene Richards (the magazine contained Richards’s black-and-white photographic essay, “Vital Signs,” on the functioning of an emergency room in Denver) in relation to that of W. Eugene Smith, the photographer who would become the subject of the towering 1989 biography that Jim and his wife Evelyn worked on for twelve years, W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance, The Life and Work of an American Photographer. “Smith tempered his truth with beauty,” Jim wrote in the editor’s note, comparing the two photographers. “Richards is relentless, he gives no quarter, and offers his viewer no relief. At their best, however, both deal in primal symbols, seem destined to stalk their images where even angels fear to tread, and are willing, perhaps driven, to pay a price for their respective ideals.”
Jim goes on to describe having previously sent his own copy of Richards’s self-published book, Dorchester Days, to Smith in Arizona, where the older photographer was beginning a new career as a teacher after recovering from a stroke. Smith then is said to have called Richards in the middle of the night, leading Richards to ask Jim if he could set up a meeting between the two. Soon Smith came to New York, and Jim invited them both and a number of others to a dinner in a Brooklyn restaurant. Apparently the dinner was not a success for the two Genes to get to know each other, with Smith tired, speaking little, and seemingly depressed. About a month later, after returning to Arizona, Smith died, not quite sixty years old, reportedly with only $18 in his bank account.
Eugene Richards’s work on the emergency room published in that issue of Camera Arts had been supported by only the second grant that had been awarded by the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund in Humanistic Photography. The Fund had been set up soon after Smith’s death in 1978 by Jim Hughes, John Morris, Howard Chapnick, Marty Forscher and Arthur Soybel, the initial money coming from personal contributions. When I joined them on the Board just a few years later it was a bare-bones operation, devoted to passing on to others the passionate legacy of a photographer who had tried throughout his lifetime to make the world a better place. Now, thirty years after Smith’s death, it continues funding photographers with various strategies in a humanistic tradition.
Jim, in a 1998 interview with John Paul Caponigro, summed up his way of working quite cogently: “I don’t think photographs can be verbalized very easily, or very effectively. I think a lot of it is unnecessary critical jargon created by people who need to make work for themselves. A lot of it is written by people at the university levels who are justifying their existence, and it goes a little bit too far. Obviously a picture can speak for itself. Some amount of reinterpretation is useful, but it gets to a point where you can kill the picture by thinking and talking about it too much, as you can do with a lot of acts that we do in our lives if they become unnatural or strained. I would much prefer not to talk about photographs and I try not to.”
And Jim continues, referencing his own work as a photographer as well: “What I talk about, what I write about mostly, and you’re doing the same thing, is the lives of the photographers who make the photographs. I think that’s much more important to understand anyway. It’s pretty easy to say that work needs to stand by itself. And it should. But I think it also helps to understand the structure on which the photographs are built. That’s what a life does. I think photography is one of the few arts that comes out of a life being lived. That’s what my pictures are. I’m living my life and I have a camera and I put it to my eye once in a while.”
Jim was a friend, a mentor, an inspiration, with his own enormous list of accomplishments “that comes out of a life being lived.”
Dean Emeritus, ICP
Former member of the Board of Trustees of the W. Eugene Smith Fund