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The first child appears in a clinic. Difficulty walking, talking. Then the second child. Then cats convulse, go mad, jump into the sea. Crows fall from the sky. Methyl mercury. Fish float dead in the bay along the hamlets. Minamata, a one-company industrial town. * Eugene Smith is famous for the war photos, the Pittsburgh series, but his health is broken. With an apprentice & his young wife, Aileen Niyoko, Smith heads for Japan. After a beating by chemical company thugs nearly blinds him, Aileen takes some of the photos. Smith frames: Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath The mother cradles Tomoko, her misshapen daughter. Light through a dark window. A post-modern pietà. More than 2600 will die. Twisted bodies. Blindness. Claw-like hands. * After two strokes, Smith dies at 59. Forty-four thousand pounds of archives. Eighteen dollars to his name.
Editor’s note: Minamata disease, a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning in industrial wastewater from the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory from 1932 to 1968, claimed thousands of lives surreptitiously while the government and company did little to prevent the pollution.
It was a dramatic photographic essay by W. Eugene Smith in LIFE that brought world attention to the disease. Smith and his interpreter, a Japanese American student from Stanford University named Aileen Mioko Sprague (whom Smith would soon marry) were touring Japan for an exhibition of his works. They planned to stay in Minamata for three weeks, but ended up staying for three years. For eighteen dollars a month, they rented a house belonging to one of the victims, sharing a dirt-floored kitchen and bath, where they developed photos.
The most striking photo of the essay shows Ryoko Uemura, holding her severely deformed daughter, Tomoko, in a Japanese bath chamber. Tomoko was poisoned while still in the womb. The New York Times called this photo “The pieta of our industrial age.” [Source: Iconic Photos]