Archive for January, 2012

Shelby, NC

Salisbury, NC. January 28, 2012. Photo by Helen Woolard.

Downtown Shelby, NC. January 28, 2012. Photo by Helen Woolard.

Saturday I drove 180 miles west to Shelby, North Carolina to conduct an interview for a project that will reveal itself soon (knock on wood).  Photographer Helen Woolard went with me.  For countless many, Shelby will always be known as the hometown of North Carolina State University basketball icon David Thompson.  DT and the University of North Carolina’s Phil Ford were the two best players to ever play in the Atlantic Coast Conference (the rest are chumps).  It occurred to me to try to find DT’s childhood home.  While wandering around downtown as Helen was shooting photographs, I sent a note to a listserv of college-basketball-oriented folks, asking if anyone had DT’s childhood address.  Nobody did.  Next time I’ll do more preparation.  An old friend on the listserv ran into DT at the State-UVA game in Raleigh later that night and mentioned to him that I had inquired about his home address earlier in the day.  It sounded like he was amused.

Phil Ford, by the way, was from Rocky Mount, the same hometown as Buck Leonard, Thelonious Monk (see, JLP is one degree away from anything), and Allan Gurganus.  I hope these small towns are still producing people like this.

Downtown Shelby was marked by more evergreen ‘live oak’ trees than I think I’ve ever seen in a downtown like that.  I find these towns to be fascinating, maybe because I grew up in a similar one.  In some ways these towns are all the same (the confederate soldier statue in front of the courthouse), but they are all different.

-Sam Stephenson

p.s. (I recently found UNC coach Dean Smith’s childhood home in Emporia, KS).

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OMG, It’s THE Book

hughes library book001

I’ve told the story about how I got into W. Eugene Smith’s work a million times.  In short (here goes again, with a new nuance), I had begun research on a book about Pittsburgh when my Pittsburgh-native wife gave me a camera for Christmas 1996.  In January 1997 I was in a camera shop in Raleigh when a clerk asked me if I’d ever seen Smith’s Pittsburgh work.  I left the shop and went to the public library in Cameron Village and I checked out Jim Hughes’ biography of Smith, Shadow and Substance.  I read the book, wrote Jim a letter, and he generously sent me a new copy of his book with a signature and note of encouragement.  I returned the borrowed copy to the library.  In April of that year I made my first visit to Smith’s archive at CCP, with the support of DoubleTake magazine.

Flash forward to yesterday:  I grabbed lunch with friend Dave Simonton who gave me a stunning gift.  It’s the copy of Shadow and Substance that I checked out 15 years ago this month.  (Or, it almost certainly is.  It’s doubtful that the Cameron Village branch would have had two copies of this book).  Dave found it in a used book store in Raleigh.

When Dave showed me these stamps and markings on the back binding, I was speechless.

I wonder, if Cameron Village had not had this book, if my curiosity would have continued.  The internet search engines and their results were in nascent stages 15 years ago (if they existed at all), so a search wouldn’t have yielded much, and with slow dial-up access it wasn’t the inspiration it can be today.

There are people I’d sign up to spend 15 years studying – Monk, Coltrane, Joe Mitchell, Bernard Malamud, and John Berger come to mind this minute – but Smith wouldn’t have been on the list.  It just happened.

-Sam Stephenson

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Bludgeoned Bunnies


I’ve been working on the Kansas parts of Gene Smith’s Sink and my nephew Hank Stephenson has been working as my research assistant.  This morning, in the WPA Guide to 1930′sKansas (1939), he came across this passage in the “sports and recreation” section of the book (P. 117-118).

“The jackrabbit drive is peculiar to western Kansas. Advertised for days in advance for handbills and local newspapers, the drive usually starts on Sunday and is attended by great crowds of spectators. A certain area, covering perhaps thousands of acres, is surrounded by beaters armed with clubs and sticks; guns are banned. Hundreds of people take part. Slowly the lines close in on all sides, flushing the rabbits into a large pen or wire enclosure at a central point, where they are clubbed to death. The daily ‘kill,’ which in many instances exceeds 6,500, is reported by the local press. Denounced in other sections as a sadistic display, the drive is defended in the Western part of the State as an economic necessity, since the rabbits feed on green wheat.”

Curious, Hank then found this stunning 1934 video.

When word of this tradition spread, apparently, there was outrage.  Hank found this quote courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society:

“Eastern Kansas residents, who had no jackrabbit problems, were among the critics, prompting some farmers to propose that the rabbits be driven to the eastern part of the state.  The farmers tried to ship live rabbits to eastern states, but Ohio game and wildlife officials realized how destructive jackrabbits were and canceled their order.  Residents of western Kansas rounded up about 1,200 live rabbits to ship to Indiana; the press in Kansas City, Omaha, and Denver as well as the Pathé newsreel company covered this attempt.”

Thousands of bludgeoned bunnies

Thousands of bludgeoned bunnies

-Sam Stephenson

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Ellison’s Invisible Man: World Premier

Invisible Man.  Court Theater.  Chicago.  2012.

Invisible Man. Court Theater. Chicago. 2012.

Tomorrow I head to Chicago for the official opening of Invisible Man, the first-ever adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s novel for stage or screen.  The play is directed by Christopher McElroen, who is also directing the ongoing theater project mentioned in this blog many times, Chaos Manor. There are several good behind-the-scenes blog entries about the preparations for Invisible Man on the Court Theater’s site.

Update 1/20:  HERE is a good article on the production from the Chicago Tribune.

-Sam Stephenson

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Smith’s Pacific WWII Photos in London Daily Mail

HERE is a spread of Smith’s WWII images in the London Daily Mail yesterday.  Thanks to Russell Burrows for the tip.

HERE is a piece I wrote last year for Paris Review about my trip following Smith’s footsteps in the Pacific.

-Sam Stephenson

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The Global Salon: Cities in Japan


Pianist Keiko Matsui

This is a heads-up regarding an intriguing event in NYC next week involving jazz, Japan, and my friend the writer Roland Kelts, who I met for the first time in Tokyo last February and with whom I conducted a conversation about my trip in Smith’s footsteps in Japan for A Public Space this past September.  Roland and I have pondered collaborating on something in Japan in the future.  In the meantime, I’m still trying to understand and write well about Gene Smith’s reasons for saying he felt like he’d been from in Japan in a former life.


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Histoire: Loft Story


The French magazine, Jazz, has a spread on the JLP in the January 2012 issue (see top right corner of cover above).  I think I’ve said this here before, but some of my friends and family say if they hear the words jazz loft project again they are going to stick a pencil in their eye.  I know how they feel.  Yet, sometimes it also feels like significant potential markets are still learning about it.  Maybe that’s how it is with everything.

Many thanks to Christian Heitz for making this happen.


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Smith’s Country Doctor on NPR Blog


Niece Lindsey Mockel, living in Portland, OR, tipped me on Smith show up on NPR’s The Picture Show blog today.


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William Gedney in the Window


A recent New York Times photo blog post brought attention to my former office mate, Margaret Sartor.  While Margaret was working on her Gedney book, What Was True, I was working on Dream Street.  We sat about six feet apart and helped keep each other’s wits about us during those uneasy projects.  In my library those two books are side by side.  Margaret’s husband, Alex Harris, by the way, is the one largely responsible for sending me on the Gene Smith path fifteen years ago this month.  It could have been a cold, rainy day like today.  I was working part-time in Quail Ridge Books, struggling in grad school, wondering what was going on.  Alex, as editor of DoubleTake magazine, gave me a phone call and offered support for me to visit Smith’s archive in Arizona and research his unfinished Pittsburgh project for a piece.  And now look.  Good heavens.  Somebody make it stop.


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Early Smith Photographs from Wichita

Courtesy of Mary Nelson from the Special Collections Library at Wichita State University, and Al Stephens, a researcher whose father and mother went to North High School with Smith in 1936, the year Smith’s father committed suicide.  Below is a photo by Smith of Al’s father Hubert Stephens, who was editor-in-chief of the yearbook and the school paper.

Hubert Stephens at Wichita High School North, 1936.  Photo by W. Eugene Smith

Hubert Stephens at Wichita High School North, 1936. Photo by W. Eugene Smith

Stories about Smith survive from Al’s mother, who remembers Smith cutting and hollowing the middle of a book in order to hide a camera inside it and carry it around the school.

East High vs. North High, 1936, Photo by W. Eugene Smith

East High vs. North High, 1936, Photo by W. Eugene Smith

Al notes that in scanning the local newspapers on microfilm from Smith’s teenage years, the photographers weren’t always given a by-line, but Smith seemed to always have one.  An early sign of his doggedness perhaps?

Many thanks to Al for these materials.


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