For historian Sam Stephenson, his interest in photographer W. Eugene Smith began innocently enough.
Two decades ago, his wife, Laurie Cochenour, gave him a camera for Christmas. While visiting her family in Pittsburgh, Stephenson snapped copious pictures of the city. Back in North Carolina, the owner of a Raleigh camera shop noted Stephenson's interest in Pittsburgh and suggested he look into Smith's work in Steel City. In 2003, Stephenson published Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project, a look at many of the photographs Smith took of Pittsburgh in 1955 during its industrial boom.
Two years later, in a loft building in Manhattan's wholesale flower district, Smith began photographing and recording the jazz musicians who gathered and played below his loft. The result? 4,000 hours of recordings on reel-to-reel tapes and nearly 40,000 photographs. Stephenson stumbled across the archives almost by mistake while working on his own Pittsburgh project. Until then, no one knew of that Smith trove—images and audio of Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, Chick Corea and hundreds of others.
Stephenson, now working out of Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies, took a moment of his Thanksgiving holiday to describe his passion for Smith's all-consuming addiction to work and the new book it's produced: The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith From 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965. The sizable volume puts the cap on Stephenson's 13-year obsession with Smith.
Well, not entirely: Stephenson is currently penning a Smith biography, and a collection of images and sounds from The Jazz Loft Project begins a national tour with an opening at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in February.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: In your new book, you mention W. Eugene Smith's work has become your work. What do you mean by that?
SAM STEPHENSON: My work begins where his work stopped. I've spent 13 years studying his life and work, and my two major books on him so far—Pittsburgh and Jazz Loft—were presentations of his work that he wasn't able to achieve adequately himself.
What do you see as the importance of bringing some version of Smith's massive body of work into public view?
History is told from the point of view of what is documented. This story provides a glimpse of an underground world that is rarely documented. It's the offstage, after-hours lives of jazz musicians and other artists and unconventional figures. For every hour a musician is onstage, there are hundreds and thousands of hours offstage. This latter, larger story rarely gets told. Then there are the musicians who never make it to a stage. They aren't good enough, or they aren't good enough at promoting themselves. I think there's a universal quality to this story. You don't have to know anything about jazz or photography or New York City to understand the concept of saving something that otherwise would have been lost to oblivion. That's what Smith did.
Was it difficult deciding which dialogues, photos and stories would be featured in the book?
Yes, it was almost impossible, given the volume of material. But, no, I've been working on this for 13 years. After all that time and effort, the decisions were made naturally and incrementally. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. At the start, when all the pieces are in a mound, it seems impossible. But slowly you turn everything right side up, then you separate out the corners and edges, and with each new piece that fits you find it a little bit easier to find the next piece.
Smith turned away from avant-garde photography and focused on a group of, at the time, unsung musicians. It seems that he went from portraying the American "lifestyle" with Life magazine to portraying a growing underground music subculture.
With Life, Smith's job was to go out into the world—usually someplace foreign to mainstream, middle-class America—and then report back with a photo story. Before television, this was how people learned about the world visually. You are right: This loft material is very different from that kind of journalistic mission. Photographer Robert Frank told me that Smith went from a public journalist to a private artist in the loft. He started documenting the world right around him.
Smith all but abandoned his four children and wife in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, as well as his child by a lover in Philadelphia. How has his family reacted to your research?
His family couldn't be nicer to me. They aren't actively involved in the content of our work, other than me quizzing them on their memories. They keep their distance for a reason. It's bittersweet for them. Being Gene Smith's children (he had five) wasn't easy. Pretty much the only thing he did in his entire life was work. He wasn't abusive or anything like that. He just was never around. Then he'd be racked with guilt about it, and when he came into some money, he'd buy his kids cars or make extravagant gestures like that. They recognize today—and probably then, too—that their father had a certain kind of obsession that might have qualified today as an illness.
But his resulting work was deeply heartfelt and compassionate, extremely sensitive, and his family knows that he had those qualities at the core of his being. He just found it difficult to express those qualities interpersonally. As a result, the family was left wounded and scarred to some degree. I think they've found a healthy distance from their father over time, and hence with my work. I've come across some children of famous artists who, as adults, grasp and cling to the legacy they inherited to the point of distortion and destruction. In the name of honoring their parent, they end up shooting the legacy in the foot. The Smith family isn't like that at all. They've been supportive and gracious.
Was there ever an attempt to stage an intervention by his family in those eight years?
The famous photographer Gjon Mili once engineered an intervention in which they gathered in a room—all his friends and loved ones. They ambushed him and tried to convince him he needed to change his habits. Of course, Smith completely lost it.
He called himself an outcast. Do you think that's how he connected with these musicians who were on the fringes to an extent?
Yes, that's true. The scene in this loft felt more like home to him than a household or an editorial boardroom, in which there were certain expectations. Most of the musicians didn't think he was crazy at all. They liked him and respected him. It comes through on the tapes. It also comes through in our interviews. Smith was capable of tremendous charm, warmth and generosity. The people who felt those qualities the most were ones who weren't relying on him for anything. People who were relying on him—his family, his editors—were often left wanting.
What has been the most difficult aspect of being in the thick of it?
The project started with me working in isolation in my house in 1997 and it grew and grew and grew, and then the growths grew appendages, and at times it felt like it wasn't going to work out. There were too many partners, too many people to keep happy. The Center for Documentary Studies may be the only organization in America that can appreciate and encourage all the angles and layers of this project. It's the beauty of CDS and the vision of its founders and the current leaders.
But the problem is that every angle looked good to me. Chaos was OK. Weird new things were OK. It can become impossible to manage from a bureaucratic point of view. You don't really see it at the time, or you see it but you fear another opportunity won't come, so you add another layer like a squirrel storing pecans for the winter. This project came close to becoming too ambitious.
I saw John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats on The Colbert Report recently, and he said he took that name for his band because mountain goats will sometimes gleefully try to jump canyons they weren't equipped to jump. The distance was just too great. The goats knew it on some level, but on a bigger level they believed they could make it. Then they'd crash to their deaths. At one point, that's the kind of feeling I had about Jazz Loft. But we made it.
Sam Stephenson reads from The Jazz Loft Project and signs copies Thursday, Dec. 3 at 6 p.m. at Durham's West End Wine Bar. Former loft resident Ronnie Free brings his trio to the party, too. For more on Smith, and for pictures from the signing, visit www.indyweekblogs.com/scan.