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Originally published in the April 9, 1951, issue of LIFE magazine, W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay, “Spanish Village,” has been lauded for more than six decades as the most moving photographic portrait ever made of daily life in rural Spain during the rule of dictator Francisco Franco. But, as the years have passed, the most chilling image from the piece—the closed, hard faces of three members of Franco’s feared Guardia Civil—has been exalted to a point where the essays’ other masterful, evocative pictures have been largely forgotten.
For countless people around the world, including photography buffs who really ought to know better, Smith’s Guardia Civil photograph is the “Spanish Village” essay.
Here, LIFE.com presents “Spanish Village” in its entirety. Even as the faces in the essay’s most famous picture evince the cruelty and arrogance often assumed by small men granted great power over others, other photographs illuminate the timeless rhythms of a small, isolated Spanish town of the last century, about which LIFE wrote: “It lives in ancient poverty and faith.”
In the 1951 article that accompanied Smith’s pictures, the magazine told its readers: