Archive for Gene Smith

Sam Stephenson’s new book, Gene Smith’s Sink, Out August 2017

Sam’s new book, the culmination of twenty years of work, will be published in August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  More information HERE.  The first event for the book will be a conversation between Sam and Eugene Richards, moderated by Arezoo Moseni, at the New York Public Library on September 19, 2017.  Info about that event and more HERE.

GSS Cover Hi Res

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Behind the Scenes of a Doc Film Based on the Jazz Loft Project

A new documentary film based on The Jazz Loft Project is currently in post-production.  For more information and to see several production stills, go HERE.

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A Photo and Note from Jim Hughes

Gene Smith's Olympus-W 001

Gene Smith's Olympus Pen-W. Photo by Jim Hughes.

I’ve noted on this blog in the past the role of Jim Hughes’ 1989 biography of Smith in my ongoing saga following Smith’s footsteps.  Jim has been supportive of me in person over the years, as well.  I like to say that I’m standing on his shoulders; the big, strong body an essential base.

In response to my post earlier this week, “Flurb,” Jim chimed in with this excellent note from the home he shares with his wife Evelyn in Maine:

I am old enough to remember New York’s old naming system for telephone exchanges. The LA 4-6935 shown in Sonia’s photograph of Gene’s “b&w” phone stands for LAckawanna-4 (I have no way of knowing if that was actually his number at the loft, even though I did call him there; the phone pictured may have been brought in from elsewhere, with an old number still attached). At any rate, years earlier, there was only LA-2 for that exchange, but then NY Tel had to add numbers and expand many exchanges to accommodate a growing population. When I first moved to Brooklyn, for example, our number was MAin 5-1521. Ours was a comparatively small neighborhood, and I seem to remember only having to dial 5-1521 for a few years for calls within the exchange until the telephone company changed to all numbers, making us 625. Then it was 212-625. Later it became 718.  Plus 622 and 624. Other exchanges were added by the time we moved to Maine, where we are now back to one area code for the entire state and two exchanges for the town.

There may be poetry in your quoted definition of Flerb as it may or may not apply to Gene, but I don’t think he would have misspelled it, given his penchant for word play and punning. Rather, I think he was using “FLURB” and “FRILB” (I see a B onscreen, but it could be a D or even a P) as mnemonics, pointing to the letters on the rotary dial to indicate numbers. I think it was probably easier for Gene to remember FLURB than 35872 (or CHelsea 3-5872) or FRILB rather than CHelsea 3-7452 or GRamercy 3-7452 — since the exchange referenced could also have been GRamercy 3, an adjacent neighborhood. Perhaps these were numbers for local food places that delivered. Or any of hundreds of other possibilities. At this point, there’s little way of knowing.

(I should note that for many years I carried all my my friends’ telephone numbers, many photographers included, in my head, and could retrieve them at will. They are all gone now. If my theory is correct, then Gene had a better system!)

Evelyn follows your blog (computer screens give me a headache and a stiff neck!), and alerts me to stuff she thinks I might want to see. Such as Gene’s phone. I also remember your showing a new-looking Olympus half-frame at one point. Attached is a photograph of the Olympus-W (for Wide) that Gene preferred. Note the bleach-and-hypo-stained fingerprints. Gene gave the camera to one of his hardworking assistants for the Jewish Museum show, Leonard Gordon, who eventually sent it to me, since it was jammed beyond repair. I keep it on a shelf, along with Gene’s 8×10 Burke & James with red bellows. On the wooden focusing bed of this behemoth, under the lensboard, was the following note, written in Gene’s distinctive block-letter hand with a felt-tip pen, that I think was intended for Carole to discover:

‘If you really love someone, you wish to say “I’m Yours” in that you strive for unselfishness. This in mutual love works out to a great and beautifully respectful equality — with passion — SMILE, I LOVE YOU!’
Jim Hughes

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Bull City Party

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention some of the excellent work that’s happening right here in the Jazz Loft Project’s administrative home town: Durham, The Bull City. This April, in particular, offers a lot of wonderful documentary work, much of it in kindred spirit to the JLP.

As part of the Bull City Soul Revival, an exhibition called “Soul Souvenirs: Durham’s Musical Memories from the 1960′s and 1970′s” opens tonight, April 19, at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, NC. Follow those links to read more about tonight’s opening event, featuring several veterans of Durham’s soul scene and next Friday’s concert with a similarly powerful lineup (April 27).

Simultaneously, at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, there’s another remarkable exhibition opening: “Full Color Depression: First Kodachrome’s From America’s Heartland.” It’s curated by Bruce Jackson and he’ll be in house to give a talk and sign his new book In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America (co-authored by Diane Christian and published by the University of North Carolina Press and CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies).

(And those are only the events with two miles of each other pertaining to tonight at 7pm. Looking forwards and backwards through this month, there’s more. A reminder for this similarly nearby exhibition opening showed up while I cobbled this entry. Fortunately, it starts at 4pm. )

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival happened here in Durham last weekend. The Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award went to an extraordinary film called Special Flight. This documentary focuses on a Swiss detention center in Frambois, where a group of immigrants live in purgatory after they’ve been denied requests for asylum while they await a (forcible) “Special Flight” away from a country that had become their true home. It shows another sort of “timeless time” or placeless place.

Full Frame also featured a new documentary with a direct tangent to the Jazz Loft Project. Radio Unnameable covered the career of late night NYC DJ Bob Fass, whose shows W. Eugene Smith often recorded. I talked with Fass on the telephone about a year ago and he alluded to a friendship with Smith. It’s not surprise that Smith would gravitate to a kindred-spirited night owl. On Smith’s tapes, there’s one night when Smith was listening to Fass’s radio show, Radio Unnameable. Smith left the recorder running and made his way to the station, onto the airwaves, and back onto his own tape that was being recorded in his loft. Smith went to the radio station for a number of reasons that night. He wanted to bring Fass a Peter LaFarge record that couldn’t be found at WBAI. The record was one of thousands in Smith’s collection and he wanted to support  folk singer Peter LaFarge, who was Fass’s guest that night. And it’s clear on the tape that LaFarge is struggling with whether or not he will sing again,k among other things. Smith had met LaFarge during the singer’s childhood while visiting New Mexico on another project. Fass interviews Smith, who facilitates a live performance by LaFarge, and they all wind up on Smith’s reel-to-reel tape in the Jazz Loft Project collection. I touched on it here.

Where can you find a similar collection of visual arts, spoken word, and musicians these days? Next week, in Durham: The Center for Documentary Studies and The Hinge will launch Professor Diablo’s True Review at the Casbah club on Tuesday, April 24. Then you’ll be able to check out the Bull City Soul Revival on Friday the 27th. This week you’ll have to choose between some great events. Next week you can go to both. There’s a lot more happening in Durham this month. If you can’t attend the events, there is plenty to take in by exploring the website links above. To quote Smith, “I’m saying it very badly.” But the word is out.  So many worthy projects may seem like a rambling list in this blog entry. These events, exhibitions, and books can’t be contained summarily in a blog’s box. They need to be experienced in depth, in real time where they might truly live and breathe.

-Dan Partridge

(At last weekend’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, there was also a documentary about letterpress printing called Kiss the Paper. Head down to Durham’s own letterpress studio,  Horse & Buggy Press for Maji Moto: Dispatches from a Drought to see their shop, new book, beautifully pressed broadsides, and exhibit).

Bull City Party!

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W. Eugene Smith's loft telephone, circa early 1960s.  Photo by Sonia Katchian.

W. Eugene Smith's loft telephone, circa early 1960s. Photo by Sonia Katchian.

The photograph above, by Sonia Katchian, was published in the JLP book.  Long a mystery was the word “FLURB” on the bottom right of the phone, and “FRILD” (if that’s what it is) on bottom left.  For some reason I never thought to Google those words.  I did that today, after a Facebook exchange about the phone with Smith’s daughter, Shana Rasmus.  According to the Urban Dictionary the definition of “flurb” is this:

Noun. n. (Flerb) Any person, male or female, living or dead, that is either immensely disillusioned, or is so enamored with the concept of role play, that they will dress and make accessible to themselves all of the following; A) Clothing in excess of five pieces of garb, weighing more than a legal twenty five lbs., B) Stage make-up that completely hides their face and identity, C) Backgrounds and stories, preferably histories, about how their chosen alter-ego came into being, D) Weapons that have no practical application on any battlefield, anywhere, and E) Names that include any of the following: An animal, a color, a plant, a mineral, a creature of world mythology, names from cultures that never existed, names from cultures that existed a long time ago, or names from cultures yet to exist, example: Sir Archduke Grand General, Priest of the Lemonade Stand of Gruesome Demise, Mr. Artimestriastidonicles Storm-death-doom-wolf-shark-black-white-red-dragon-sword-thorn-silver-hallibut, the Fifth, Esquire.

That is just about perfect.

Still working on “frild” (or whatever).

-Sam Stephenson

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A Garden of Sand

garden of sand001

In an effort to help me learn as much as possible about Gene Smith’s life and times in Wichita, Kansas, 1918-1936, my research assistant, Hank Stephenson, who is the only person I know to have read the entirety of Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” (he tracked down and read many of Burton’s original sources, too), recently read Earl Thompson‘s 1970 novel, “A Garden of Sand,” set in Wichita in the 1930s.  This morning Hank handed me Thompson’s opening passage:

“Love a place like Kansas and you can be content in a garden of raked sand. For ground it is the flattest. Big sky, wheat sea, William Inge, bottle clubs, road houses—Falstaff and High Life, chili and big juke road houses—John Brown, Wild Bill Hickock, Carry A. Nation, cockeyed Wyatt Earp, Pretty Boy Floyd, and shades of all those unspoken Indians. Out there on the flat, in a wheat sea, on spooky buffalo grasses where the ICBM’s go down into the shale and salt of a prehistoric sea wherein the mighty mosasaurs once roamed and the skies were not cloudy all day.

Where John Brown and Pretty Boy Floyd could have run one-two in any election through 1937, there are still more members of the Townsend Clubs than anywhere else save Long Beach. And professional baseball can’t make a dime, while semipro can draw 25,000 fans to a swing-shift game getting under way at 1 A.M. of a Tuesday between the Honolulu Hawaiians and the Boing Bo-Jets. The state was strong for Bryan, and it had Alf Landon. It went for Nixon and dug Goldwater. It admired John L. Lewis for his stubbornness but never let labor unions get more than a toehold anywhere. It built one of the best educational systems in the land, then let the Boy Scouts set miniature Statues of Liberty on all the lawns.

Where traditionally, though as Republican in taste as Ike’s sport jackets, a governor of the state rarely succeeds in office even if the electorate has to go for a Democrat. It is the same with all public office holders. And should the incumbent’s opponent be of such a known unconscionable quantity that they trust the governor for a second term, he could pay his own carfare and postage and still not go for three. Which is why Wilkie could have carried the state with a picture postcard.

Where ministers preach against “The Carnal Knowledge of Women” as if it were a Communist plot and seek legislation against smoking and obscene literature as if one were the crypto-cover for the other; the girls are prettier than those up in the hills on the Missouri side, and virginity before marriage—or puberty, for that matter—means less than regular church attendance. Calvinism still runs deeper than the missile sites bore, and the Amish are ever more respected than Papists. Women who were taken in by Jackie Kennedy will never be fooled by Jackie O.

Where the displaced progeny of rebels fleeing for their lives after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 came walking out of the American highlands after the Battle of Shiloh looking once more for a place where a man tired of war and rumors of war might live once and for all on his own terms. It is a place where carny hustlers and storefront gypsies can still work the shell game and the money witch every day of the week and Hadacol outsells Johnny Walker.

Calvinism gets its test every summer by any erstwhile Gantry who can rent a tent and con the local funeral parlors out of folding chairs and cardboard fans on a stick. Attendance at regular churches thins out appreciably as soon as the revivalist’s sound truck has gone once around, and Christians, whether they sprinkle, pour, or half-drown, are hard pressed to get up a quorum until the Bible-banger pulls the plug on the last electric Christian guitar and beats it out of town with the tent and awning company wanting to know who is going to pay the last week’s rent on the tabernacle.

Then all those abandoned souls who had mad passionate, spontaneous decisions for Christ down on their knees in the sawdust under canvas shake out their cuffs and come penitently back as from a week’s vacation at the Sodom and Gomorrah Hilton, looking straight ahead, seeing in the eyes of their preacher above that superior, all-forgiving-smile their sin—idolatry! Confessed and forgiven, they are ready once again to bear the winter’s long hymns while a high, bright, cold winter sun illuminates the stained glass. There is that dry prairie cold in which you can freeze to death feeling only a warm drowsiness.

So, though any Kansan knows in his heart that in the end all those dandy saviors go South, there is a kind of displaced black, Highland-Scandinavian hope into which any sort of witch doctor or witch hunter can worm. Sitting on enough nuclear explosive to blow his ass to atoms, the collective Kansas tunes in “Let Freedom Ring” and sincerely believes the only Christian thing to do is to obliterate Peking. And many still want a shot at Rome, too. “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country” is how Hermann Goring put it.

Which leaves Kansas just about the same as anyplace else that hasn’t as yet had the benefits of the civilizing influence of the Mafia operating on the local level. Where ordinary man’s sins, repentances, and hopes are of no more consequence than some long gone Indian vision quest. The record is yet more important than the private man.

This is a story of ordinary, hardworking, often out of work Christians who are Kansans until they die.”

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Update on Dream Street


In today’s mail I received from W.W. Norton my semi-annual statement of sales and royalties for Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project.  From April 1, 2011 to September 30, 2011, 199 copies of the softcover edition were sold.  I find that number weirdly wonderful.  Norton’s statement period marks the 10th anniversary of the book’s publication, which was officially October 2001 but it was actually available that September.

I wonder who those 199 people are.  They could fit into a large bar or small theater.


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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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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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