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


  1. Jocelyn Said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

    That is AMAZING!!!!

  2. Debbie Burke Said,

    January 28, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

    Phenomenal. Serendipity. Well put, SS.

    Debbie Burke
    Author, “The Poconos In B Flat”