As I mentioned before, I was invited to give a talk last week at Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art, which is an impressive organization run by Patrcia McDonnell. Among other things, they organized a luncheon with Smith’s first cousin Jim Caplinger, a photography instructor at WSU Dale Strattman, and Mickey Armstrong the widow of Smith’s close hometown friend Pete Armstrong. Then after my talk there was a donors’ dinner at a private home and it was there I met a local lawyer and photographer Michael Roach. More on that below.
While in town I roamed Smith’s neighborhood, trolled libraries, and interviewed a few people. Smith was born there in 1918 and he left there in 1936 after graduating from high school. His father committed suicide a month before his graduation. Smith went to Notre Dame for a year and then dropped out to become a professional photographer in New York. By age nineteen he was a staff photographer for Newsweek.
If you believe Freud, a human being is basically a finished psychological organism by age five. If you don’t believe Freud then certainly you must agree, to some degree, that by age eighteen there’s no turning back. So in my forthcoming biography of Smith I’m going deep on Wichita and Smith’s family. His mother’s side of the family – the Caplinger side – is well covered. Smith’s first cousin Bob Caplinger, who I visited in Kansas City at the end of the week, has written a book on the subject. The frontier of my research concerns the parents of Smith’s father, William Henry Smith, about whom we know very little. The other frontier is figuring out how a boy from Wichita 1918-1936 became such a feverish seer and relentless messenger. I found local newspapers with his photographs when he was fourteen. By age sixteen he was driving around town in a car with “Eugene Smith, Photographer” painted on the side. The town of Wichita and its history are fascinating, too. On the trip somebody told me that somewhere in between Kansas and Wichita the East becomes West. In my drive between the two cities that struck me as true.
After dropping my bags at the hotel I drove over to the Riverside neighborhood where Smith grew up. His spent his first eight years in one home (the first photograph below) and the next ten years in a second home basically across the street (the second photo). Both of these homes face due east. The second home is on the bank of the Arkansas River in just about the only spot along that river – because of the bends – where a house could face due east. Smith spent eighteen years facing east in Wichita and then fourteen years facing east (and photographing eastward from the window) in 821 Sixth Avenue. Those are the two locations where he spent the longest blocks of time in his life.
I began my talk at the Ulrich Museum by riffing on the parallels between Smith’s childhood homes in Wichita and 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City, admitting that I might be making too much of it, that the connection might be a reach. Then I continued the rest of my talk.
At dinner after my talk attorney Michael Roach, a passionate photographer, approached me and said he was applying for a grant with a goal to rent Smith’s two childhood homes, take out all the furniture, and photograph through the windows from various vantages. The point being that the windows were Smith’s first apertures. This reminds me of John Berger’s great essay about J.M.W. Turner in which he relates Turner’s art to the boyhood scenes Turner saw in his father’s barber shop in London. I told Roach that if he pulled this off to let me know and I’ll be there. Roach also wants to do the same thing with Gordon Parks’ childhood home in Kansas, by the way.
Smith last visited Wichita in April of 1977 (he died in 1978) and he was photographed there by Dale Strattman. In a future blog entry I’ll post a couple of Dale’s photographs. Over the years Dale and his wife Kathy have collected just about everything ever published by Smith or about him. I spent one afternoon at their house. One thing that struck me while looking through their collection of LIFE magazines was that Loudon Wainwright (the musician’s father) was an editor at LIFE. I had no idea. I’m now making an effort to reach Loudon to see if he remembers any stories from his father. His album “History” is a documentary work, in my view.
I also visited Susan Nelson, a retired English professor at WSU. She grew up in the Riverside neighborhood four blocks from Smith and her older siblings were Smith’s age. She described a neighborhood in which nobody locked doors and kids wandered in and out of everybody’s homes, borrowing books from neighbors’ shelves and returning them, no permission necessary. This sounds like the loft.
I finished my stay in Wichita with Dale at the WSU special collections library watching a 70-minute interview with Smith by then-director of the Ulrich, Martin Bush, shot on Smith’s visit in 1977. I was disappointed that Bush never asked him about his childhood, his return home, or his father’s suicide. The other thing that struck me after watching this interview, and after reading all of Dale’s articles and interviews with Smith, is people rarely asked him about Pittsburgh and they never asked him about Jazz Loft, the two largest and longest projects his career (measured by materials and time). I need to do some more thinking about that.
Below are the photos of the two homes. The first house is for sale and empty. It might be a good time for Michael Roach to get in there, and me to return.
- Sam Stephenson