We were delighted when Rich O’Connell, a family member of loft veteran Phil Dante, contacted us a few days ago. Rich wrote, “Smith was the best man at my in-laws wedding in Brooklyn in September 1960. A funny story that has been past down in our family is that Smith did not own shoes so he wore a pair of galoshes for the ceremony.” He also told us, “My wife, Michele, born in 1961, remembers going to visit Smith as a little girl. She says one thing she remembers is waterbugs.”
Phil Dante was born to Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City in 1934. Phil was a musician and a photographer who spent time in the loft working as Gene Smith’s assistant. He was a founding member of the photography collective En Foco. In a 2004 Jazz Loft Project interview with Sam Stephenson and Dan Partridge, Phil describes visiting the loft and meeting Smith:
Well, my best friend was still in music; he was a drummer who played with some very big names, and he would let me know when there were jam sessions. And such a jam session occurred in this loft on 6th Avenue and 28th Street. And the little corner of the first landing belonged to Hall Overton, pianist and composer. And there was a session that particular night with Zoot Sims and others, and my friend. And during a break in the music, Hall came to me and spoke to me, and I told him my interest was photography. And he said, “Well, right next door to me lives a former Life photographer by the name of Gene Smith. You ought to look him up.” And this is, I was– In whatever field of music, field of interest I’ve ever had, I’ve tried to reach people at the top. When it was the music, as a bass player, I was hanging out with people that played at Birdland. I always reached for the top, to learn, to learn. And in photography I was willing to learn from anyone, and for him to tell me that, I would be willing to do anything.
And so a week later I knocked on his door. In 1959, just before Pittsburgh broke. I knocked on his door, and the door opened, here’s this quiet man in an overused t-shirt. And he said, “Yes? Can I help you?”
I told him my name. Well, he didn’t ask me in yet, I’m standing outside. I said, “I’m a friend of Hall’s.”
“Oh, come on in.”
And we talked. “Mr. Smith, I want to learn photography. I’m willing to do anything—sweep, clean, whatever, whatever, anything in order to be near you and learn from you.”
And I really didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know his reputation. I didn’t know who I was talking to, just that Hall had mentioned him. And he said, “Well, I can’t afford an assistant at this time.”
He was interested in the fact that I had played at one time, that I was a musician. He asked me questions about that. And we spent about ten minutes talking, and he said, “Well, why don’t you call me in a week or so?”
That’s all he said. I was living in Staten Island at the time, with my grandmother. I called him in two weeks, and, “Oh, yes, yes, yes. You’re the fellow. Why don’t you come on over?”
So, yeah, it meant taking a bus, a ferry, a train. Finally I’m on 28th Street. And then I’m walking up, as I come to the bottom of the stairs he says to me, “Can you use a hammer?”
And I said, “What do you want me to hit?”
And that’s how we started. He was putting up a partition on the first floor landing, a plywood four-by-eight, four-by-six. So I came up, he handed me a hammer, and we did no nailing. For three hours we leaned on this piece of wood while I asked him questions, the most basic questions in photography. I mean, I had so many questions to ask…About chemicals, about paper, about emotion. All the questions that someone eager and new to photography is hungry to know. And here you are, you’re standing with a professional master, and he has all the answers. And was very patient answering. And we just talked and talked and talked. Finally, after about—I think it was about three hours of this talking back and forth, he said, “All right, enough of this. Let’s put up this wall. No more questions about developing and the hypo.”
And I think in five minutes we had the damn thing up, and I think it stood for, I don’t know, for years. Eventually it got painted over by one of his kids. Every time I walked up the stairs—there’s our work. And then it was, that real first meeting, was really—it was wonderful. Looking at the images, he sat in his recliner, and we talked and we talked and we talked. I always had questions, and I’d look at something, and he’d say, “Well, that’s from an essay that failed.” Or, “That’s from ‘Spanish Village. That’s from ‘Nurse Midwife,’” so forth and so forth and so forth.
We learned from Rich that Phil passed away in December of 2004, just a month after Sam and Dan recorded this interview.
- Lauren Hart