Archive for Gene Smith

Gene Smith’s Birthday

Dave Simonton sent me a reminder note this morning.  Smith was born December 30, 1918.  I spent a few minutes rummaging for something unique that I’ve never posted before.  Then I figured I couldn’t do much better than to re-post these two images of Smith, the first of him and Larry Clark in the loft in 1962, by Gernot Newman, and the second of him in Wichita in 1977, the year before he died, by Terry Evans.  He was 59 when he died.  He’d be 93 today.

Larry Clark and Gene Smith in 821 Sixth Avenue, 1962. Photo by Gernot Newman.

Larry Clark and Gene Smith in 821 Sixth Avenue, 1962. Photo by Gernot Newman.

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

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

-Sam Stephenson

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The Notebooks

~44 pounds.

~44 pounds.

“Someday I think you should come down and weigh my scrapbook.” -W. Eugene Smith

We have now heard all of the digitized audio material made from the tapes found in W. Eugene Smith’s collection. These notebooks hold the paper version of my notes as well as the contributions of fellow listeners Hank Stephenson, Will Harris, Beth Turner, Lauren Brenner, and Margaret Hennessey. Special thanks to these individuals for sharing in the discovery of Smith’s audio. And to Sam Stephenson, for creating the Jazz Loft Project and allowing me to hear this collection, in addition to sharing in the discovery of the wonders found in and beyond Smith’s recordings.  We are grateful for the support of our friends at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona Libraries as well as our friends here in Durham at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

This work would not have been possible without the generous support of the Reva and David Logan Foundation. Likewise, we are deeply grateful to the Heirs of W. Eugene Smith.

We are also thankful for crucial funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (The Grammy Foundation), the Duke University Office of the Provost, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Ken and Amelia Jacob, and Kimpton Hotels.

Many people have contributed to this listening and cataloging work. In thinking of people to thank, the list begins to grow towards the size of the list of names of people who passed through the loft at 821 Sixth Avenue. And there is a good deal of overlap in these two lists. We are very fortunate and most thankful to have met and heard the stories of many who lived in, worked in, and visited this loft building.  And we are fortunate to collaborate with a wonderful community of partners, archivists, audio  engineers, colleagues, advisors, work study students, interns, friends, and fellow Rome builders. Thank you!

At this juncture, we are working with our partner institutions on the next steps in the prospect of archiving this enormous collection so  that it may be made available to the public in the future.

-Dan Partridge

Photo by Harlan Campbell.

Photo by Harlan Campbell.

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Fixing the Shadow

Yesterday I had yet another inspiring conversation with the poet Betty Adcock.  Such conversations with her and her late husband Don Adcock have been the norm for me over the past fifteen years (I wrote about Don here).  I’m lucky.  This particular chat was about my growing efforts to go deep on Gene Smith’s background in Wichita, to learn what it was about his first eighteen years that he carried for the next forty.  We talked about John Keats and James Dickey, among others.  I told Betty I’d been reading the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, in particular his treatise on art, “In Praise of Shadows,” and his “Seven Japanese Tales,” which was recommended to me by novelist Allan Gurganus (I mentioned Tanizaki in a Paris Review piece here).  We ended up talking about the term “fixer,” in regard to the darkroom chemical, and also in regard to care giving and healing – themes that recurred in Smith’s work, and in regard to efforts to make solid shaky things in general.

Betty then pointed me toward a poem by her friend Claudia Emerson, Pulitzer Prize winner.  It’s called “Secure the Shadow” and I’ve read it six times in the past 24 hours.  I look forward to Claudia’s new book.

Check out Betty’s talk about Dickey here.  The talk provides a clear sense of her brilliance and humor.

-Sam Stephenson

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Gene Smith and Larry Clark, 1962

Last night Larry Clark sent me this photograph of him and Gene Smith in 821 Sixth Avenue.  According to Larry it’s from 1962 and made by Gernot Newman.  Larry and Gernot had hitchhiked from Milwaukee to NYC during a holiday that year.  Larry found the picture earlier in the week while rummaging through some boxes.  He gave me permission to post it here.

-S.S.

Larry Clark and W. Eugene Smith, 821 Sixth Avenue, 1962.  Photo by Gernot Newman.

Larry Clark and W. Eugene Smith, 821 Sixth Avenue, 1962. Photo by Gernot Newman.

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Progression: How and What?

Above is the title of a piece by John McPhee in the November 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  Here’s a clip:

“For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere.  They just go by in a ceaseless stream.  Since you may take a month, or ten months, or several years to turn one idea into a piece of writing, what governs the choice?  I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college.  I checked off more than ninety per cent.”

McPhee’s passage helps explain why I’ve made three week-long trips to Gene Smith’s hometown of Wichita and why I may make one more before this manuscript is finished next year.  The passage also has me pondering what it is about my first eighteen years that led me to spend fifteen adult years researching Smith’s Pittsburgh, then his goings on at 821 Sixth Avenue, and now the full story.  It also may help explain why I picked up tennis last spring after a twenty-five year layoff and have played four days a week since then.  Who knows?

-Sam Stephenson

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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.

-S.S.

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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.

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

Photographs by Kate Joyce.

-Sam Stephenson

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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 ESPN.com 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.

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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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