Archive for November, 2011

Gene Smith in Wichita 1977

The following portrait of Gene Smith was made by Terry Evans in Wichita in 1977, on the occasion a retrospective exhibition.  It was the last visit he made to his hometown.   He died the following year at age fifty-nine, after two strokes.  Throughout his career he maintained an interest in human hands:  the handcraft of musicians in the JLP series, a variety of human expressions in others, from tenderness to outrage.  After re-examining her negative yesterday Terry told me Smith was holding a pen in this picture.  Before Terry’s revelation, photographer Kate Joyce, a friend of Terry’s from Chicago, suggested Smith was holding an “air” camera, like an air guitar.  I think they are both right.

Gene Smith in Wichita, 1977. Photograph by Terry Evans.

Gene Smith in Wichita, 1977. Photograph by Terry Evans.


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New Yorker’s Richard Brody on Sonny Clark in Tin House

Today the New Yorker’s Richard Brody commented on my new piece in Tin House on Sonny Clark.  We are grateful for him spreading the word in his consistently thoughtful and engaging New Yorker blog.


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Woodrow Street, Wichita: Late Fall 2011.

Two weeks ago I made my third visit to Gene Smith’s hometown of Wichita, Kansas.  The Ulrich Museum of Art organized another impressive week of events.  Their staff and patrons were generous and welcoming as usual.

With the help of Eric Cale, director of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, I managed to go inside the house where Smith lived his first eight years with his parents and older brother.  Photographer Kate Joyce, who was also in town to give a couple of talks at the Ulrich, went with me.  You can see a sequence of her photographs below.

On Smith’s last visit to Wichita in 1977, a year before he died at age fifty-nine, this house at 1201 Woodrow St. was his priority, according to his companion at the time, photographer Sherry Suris, who made photographs of him inside the house and standing in the yard.   Smith didn’t visit the bigger home across the street on N. River Blvd. where his family moved in 1926 when he was eight.  This was where Gene’s father, William Smith, left one morning in April 1936, drove to a hospital parking lot and blew open his stomach with a shotgun.  Happier memories were in the Woodrow house; plus its windows were Smith’s first apertures.

The current residents of 1201 Woodrow are Reverend David Carter, a minister at a Unitarian Universalist church, and his wife Marguerite Regan, an English and writing instructor at Newman University.  They were gracious and accepting hosts for our exploration of their place.  Before becoming a minister David had worked with Roy DeCarava and others as a member of Kamoinge, a forum for African-American photographers in New York founded in 1963 and continuing today.  He and Marguerite were intrigued to learn that Smith had lived in their house as a young boy eighty-five years ago.

Back home in North Carolina last week, I mailed David and Marguerite a copy of the Jazz Loft Project book.  As I walked away from the post office in the back of the hardware store near the home where my wife and I have lived for thirteen of the fifteen years that I’ve been researching Smith, it occurred to me that I had just done something unusual:  I packaged my book about Smith’s New York City loft and addressed it to his first home in Wichita.  Both buildings face due east.  The Sixth Avenue loft had traffic running right to left in front of his window; the Wichita home had the Little Arkansas River running left to right.

The week culminated with a moving talk by photographer Terry Evans, whose exhibition “Matfield Green Stories” was installed at the Ulrich.  A native of the Kansas plains, Terry has spent her life photographing places not unlike Smith’s paternal grandparents’ farm in Severy, an hour east of Wichita, which was memorable enough for Smith to mention in his book on Minamata, Japan forty years later.  At dinner after her talk, Terry’s husband Sam Evans, who has a background in the grain and banking industries in Kansas, gave me poignant insights into the pressures and customs Smith’s father would have experienced as a grain dealer and President of Wichita’s Board of Trade before and during the Depression.

In the second half of 2012 I’ll submit my manuscript for Gene Smith’s Sink to my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  I’m not sure if I’ll visit Wichita again before the manuscript is done.  But I’d like to return when the book is published.  Wichita and Japan loom large in the story.









Little Arkansas River Homage to Jun Morinaga's River: Its Shadow of Shadows.

Photographs by Kate Joyce.

-Sam Stephenson

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Zoot Fest Recap

Tom Reney of New England Public Radio has a good write-up about the Zoot Fest at East Stroudsberg University last Sunday.  I’m waiting on a few pictures and when I get them I’ll post something myself.


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Another Kansan Named Smith

I’m in Wichita, KS for another week of research on my biography of W. Eugene Smith and a series of events with the Ulrich Museum of Art.  While in nearby Emporia yesterday to speak to the outstanding photographer Larry Schwarm‘s bi-weekly forum of 160 art students at Emporia State University, I sought and found the childhood homes of Dean Smith, the immortal retired basketball coach.  According to the yearly city directories at the Lyon County Historical Museum and Archives, Coach Smith lived with his family (parents Alfred and Vesta) at 1106 Washington St. from his birth in 1931 through 1937.  They moved a block away to 1217 Washington St. in 1938 and lived there until 1947 when his father got a new job in Topeka, KS and they moved.  (For Dean Smith’s achievements with racial integration as a high school junior and senior in Topeka, check out Richard Lapchick’s fascinating piece from earlier this year).  Below are my snapshots of the two houses and neighborhood where Coach Smith spent his first sixteen years.  There was a light snow all day.

1106 Washington St.  Emporia, KS.

1106 Washington St. Emporia, KS. November 16, 2011.

1106 Washington St.  Emporia, KS.

1106 Washington St. Emporia, KS.

The intersection between the two childhood homes of Dean Smith.

The intersection between the two childhood homes of Coach Smith.


1217 Washington St. Emporia, KS. November 16, 2011.

1217 Washington St. (right).  Emporia, KS.

1217 Washington St. (right). Emporia, KS.

1106 Washington St.  Emporia.

1106 Washington St. Emporia.

The picture above has a closer view of the basketball goal behind the house.  Do the owners or tenants of this house know it was the home of Coach Smith?  In my experience doing this kind of work, it’s doubtful that they know.  But they might.  The house at 1217 Washington looks to me to have had a stucco makeover since it was built but the original structure may have been maintained.

Here are two snapshots of downtown Emporia yesterday.

Downtown Emporia.  November 16, 2011.

Downtown Emporia. November 16, 2011.

Downtown Emporia.  November 16, 2011.  1pm.

Downtown Emporia. November 16, 2011. 1pm.

Somebody needs to spend 5 to 10 years researching a book on Coach Smith.  That’s what the best literary biographies require and he deserves that level of attention.  What he did to become famous is part of the public record, but for each 2-hour practice or 2-hour basketball game, how many other hours did he spend doing things that really define who he is?  The social and spiritual progressivism and how it informed his coaching, his daily life; that’s where the story is.  It requires extensive oral history interviews.  For each icon there’d be twenty obscure figures to interview and the latter would be treated in the same manner as the former.  That’s how Coach Smith would want it done.  That’s how good research is done.  Three or four or five hundred interviews would be require, maybe more.

I never signed up to spend fifteen years researching W. Eugene Smith.  It all started with a freelance magazine article and it grew incrementally from year to year.  If I may be so presumptuous, Coach Smith is one of the figures that I’d sign up to spend many years researching (Joseph Mitchell, Sonny Clark, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Bernard Malamud, Zoot Sims, Donald Ross, Marcia Davenport, Willa Cather, and John Berger are a few other names I just jotted on my breakfast napkin, people I’m thinking about a lot these days, for various reasons).

Recently I wrote a 2000-word piece that may serve as the prologue for my upcoming Eugene Smith biography for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  I’ve had prologues on my brain.  My prologue for a book on Coach Dean Smith might be about me, as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill circa 1986, walking behind Carmichael Auditorium on my way to class one day.  I noticed a big black sedan (I think it was BMW) pulling into a prime parking spot.  I watched Coach Smith get out of the car and walk into Carmichael.  I walked over to his car and looked inside.  The front floorboard on the passenger’s side was covered in about six inches of cigarette butts.  I thought, this is Coach Smith:  He’s too socially aware to throw his cigarette butts out the window, so he piles them up inside his car.  The backseat floorboards were covered in about four inches of golf balls and tees and assorted trash.

When I told a photographer this anecdote yesterday at Emporia State University, she thought for a minute and responded, “He must not have had many passengers.”

Saints often have to go at it alone.

-Sam Stephenson

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More Scenes from Tucson

Looking south toward Finger Rock

Looking south toward Finger Rock - early snow

Takeshi Ishikawa in front of the house where Gene Smith lived in Tucson.

Takeshi Ishikawa in front of the house where Gene Smith lived in Tucson when he died 1978

Takeshi Ishikawa and Sam Stephenson in front of CCP, Tucson.

Takeshi Ishikawa and Sam Stephenson in front of CCP, Tucson.

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Takeshi Ishikawa in Tucson

Takeshi Ishikawa and me at CCP. Tuesday Nov. 8.

Takeshi Ishikawa and me at CCP. Tuesday Nov. 8.

I spent a couple of days in Tucson this week with Takeshi Ishikawa, who was Gene and Aileen Smith’s assistant for three years in Minamata.  Earlier this year I spent a day with Ishikawa-san in Tokyo and then four moving days in Minamata.  I wrote about the experience for Paris Review Daily, “Letter from Japan,” and my interpreter Momoko Gill talked about Ishikawa-san in an interview I did with her HERE.

We looked at materials in Smith’s archive at CCP that Ishikawa-san hadn’t seen since he helped create them forty years ago.  The story of how Ishikawa met Smith jibes with many other stories I’ve heard about Smith in which he used instinct, not credentials, when hiring assistants.  Smith’s exhibition, Let Truth Be the Prejudice, was on display in a Shinjuku department store in September 1971 and on the first panel there was a large portrait of the bearded Smith.  The twenty-year-old photography student Ishikawa attended that show several times.  A week or two later he was walking down the street in Shinjuku and he saw Smith.  Speaking little to no English, he introduced himself to Smith, who spoke no Japanese.  He ended up spending three years with Gene and Aileen.  Ishikawa’s childhood and youth in rural Japan gave him a perfect background to complement Gene and Aileen in Minamata.

In the CCP archive there are many photographs by Smith in which Ishikawa appears – photos of him building a darkroom in Minamata, for example – that Ishikawa doesn’t remember seeing before.  Tuesday night, after the archive closed, Ishikawa showed me a binder full of images that he made of Gene and Aileen in Minamata, none of which have been published, to my knowledge.  Ishikawa has been returning to Minamata regularly over the years, photographing the changes in the landscape and keeping track of surviving Minamata Disease patients.  It’s an important body of work, and the story of Ishikawa is important, too.  For the past thirty years he’s been traveling to India to photograph the “third sex” Hijras, a body of work that bears the influence of Smith even though Ishikawa has done this work in color.  More on all this later, once I get some scans from him.

Takeshi Ishikawa and Momoko Gill in Minamata. March 2011.

Takeshi Ishikawa and Momoko Gill in Minamata. March 2011.

-Sam Stephenson

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Filling Gaps


Gita Lenz. Self-portrait. Circa 1951.

Lane Wurster of the Splinter Group tipped me on this NPR story from earlier in the year about the late photographer Gita Lenz.  This story strikes a number of chords with me.  Kudos to these guys for getting this book and exhibition done.

I’m writing this post from Tucson, AZ where I’m visiting the Center for Creative Photography (CCP), digging through Smith’s archives once again.  How many times have I been here?  I don’t know.  My first trip was April 1997.  25 trips?  Maybe more.  At least one of the trips was for two weeks.  There’s no way in a million years this work would have been done if it hadn’t been for the complementary lodging I’ve received on every trip from my wife Laurie’s old friends Carol Buuck and in the early days Linda Armijo (and her husband Dane and son Jimmy).

History is told from the point of view of what’s documented.  What’s not documented might as well have not happened, as far as the written and understood history is concerned.  (If CCP hadn’t saved Smith’s tapes for thirty years, what would I be doing now?).  But it’s important not to fall too hard for the romance of the forgotten story, to make too much of it.  Often, there’s a reason why something wasn’t documented.  But even in those cases, the story can be fascinating and valuable.  It can fill gaps.  In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote “Stalk the gaps,” inspired by the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel.  The gaps are where novelists, playwrights, poets, and other artists have always wallowed.  But, beware, it’s not a good business model.  No focus group would ever encourage it.

More on the Tucson trip later.  I’m out here with Smith’s Minamata assistant Takeshi Ishikawa and writer Yumi Yamaguchi who is working on a book about Minamata.  Last night at dinner Yumi talked about the critical importance of Ishikawa-san’s work and presence in Eugene and Aileen Smith’s Minamata work.  She mentioned a few things I hadn’t considered.  Her book may turn out to be more about Ishikawa than the Smith’s.  That would be a gap filled.  I’ll try to fill that one again in Gene Smith’s Sink.

-Sam Stephenson

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Zoot Fest


HERE is a good article from the Pocono Record newspaper on next weekend’s Zoot Fest in Delaware Water Gap, PA.


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Pulphead: Book of the Week


Pulphead is by John Jeremiah Sullivan.  Among other one-of-a-kind essays the book contains my favorite essay on the complicated history of the American blues and its latter day appreciation.  When this essay originally was published in Harper’s I read it a half dozen times.  John doesn’t deride anyone in his examination (and some of the enthusiasts and capitalists of the blues might be easy targets); he’s just curious about the topic – how the music was formed in the first place, why it was forgotten, and why it was revived – and he goes deeper than anybody else I’ve read on the topic.  Plus, the dude can write sentences (something many scholars don’t do very well) better than most novelists.

There’s more to it than the blues piece.  You won’t find a range of topics covered more eloquently and thoughtfully and rigorously.  And beautifully.  Last week’s New York Times Book Review did a good job getting at it.

Here are a couple of interesting pieces, including some photographs from John’s current book tour through Mississippi and piece from GQ about how he finds his topics.


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