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Remembering Jim Hughes Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

27 December 2018

Jim Hughes, who passed away earlier this month, was a photographer best known for his stewardship of Camera Arts magazine and the definitive biography of W. Eugene Smith.

He majored in English, History, and Philosophy at the University of Connecticut before becoming a reporter and photographer for a daily newspaper. In 1962 he moved to New York to become a playwright. Finding food a necessity, he worked for a series of trade journals, which led to a career in magazine editing.

In 1966, he became the editor of Camera 35, which in 1974 published W. Eugene Smith's photo essay on the effects of industrial mercury pollution in Minamata, Japan.

"My contribution was to try to make it [the magazine] even more serious by putting even greater emphasis on portfolios and photo essays," Hughes reminisced once.

When Camera 35 was sold the next year, Hughes became editor of the Popular Photography Annual.

But his "proudest accomplishment" (in his own words) was creating and editing the original Camera Arts magazine, which in 1982 became the first photography magazine to receive the National Magazine Award for General Excellence.

Being named Editor of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association in 1983 didn't, however, save the magazine. It was shut down with its subscriber list sold to a competitor.

In an interview with John Paul Caponigro, Hughes recalled the moment:

It was really distressing. It was distressing to me personally because Camera Arts embodied what I believed a quality magazine could be. I viewed it as a kind of New Yorker for photographic publishing. I wanted it to do somewhat the same thing, to bring together readers who become a community and then service them as a community to create a dialogue so that through pictures, through letters, through the articles, they could all be talking to each other.

Hughes and his wife Evelyn (who married in her mother's Fifth Ave. apartment during a total eclipse of the sun) had already been researching the life and work of Eugene Smith. It took them 12 years to complete the massive work but W. Eugene Smith: Shadow & Substance was finally published in 1989.

He had wanted a two-volume set but he couldn't find a publisher to do it. So he pared down the text to just 600 pages. The Online Photographer published the story of the Third Annual Miami Conference that Hughes cut from the biography at the last minute. "This was the cut I regretted more than any other," he wrote.

Of his photography, he said, "To me photography is illusion and always has been. People who think that they're looking at reality are simply misguided. They just don't understand."

Hughes was blue-green color blind. "I can get up in the morning and put on one green sock and one blue sock and not know the difference," he said.

But he shot in color, favoring primary colors. "I can see color but I have to really work at it. That’s part of the photographic process for me, seeing the world more clearly by using the camera, working on it."

Near the end of his interview with Caponigro, Hughes interrupts the question to have the last word, which seems only fitting to let him have here too:

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.

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.

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