Once Upon a Time in New York

W. Eugene Smith, Sixth Avenue, New York City.  Photograph by David Vestal.  March 1965.

W. Eugene Smith, Sixth Avenue, New York City. Photograph by David Vestal. March 1965.

Late in the JLP book we included David Vestal’s above photograph of Gene Smith.  Below the photograph we included this quote from my 2007 interview with Vestal:

“I had been visiting Ralph Steiner, just a social visit, and I was walking home.  It was beginning to rain.  And there was Gene standing in front of a lighted store, where they sold yarn or something, and he was looking the way he looks in the picture.  He had just been robbed.  His cameras were stolen and, what was worse, cameras with film in them.  Because, well, in the loft he had got involved with junkies, and the junkies were stealing the cameras.  I didn’t know at that time that Gene was a junkie himself, because he didn’t tell that to anything except other junkies.”

In December 1966 Popular Photography published a long article by Vestal under the title, “…a Great Unknown Photographer – W. Eugene Smith.”  Of course Smith was famous.  But at the time he was widely considered to be down and out.  He was down and out.  Vestal’s piece was an attempt to defend Smith against his growing reputation as a loose canon who couldn’t finish anything, who was impossible to work with.  Vestal is a born teacher;  give him an opening and he’s going to relentlessly show you how things should be done.  He had a bone to pick with this piece on Smith and he picked it beautifully.  It’s one of my favorite pieces in the Smith literature.

Vestal also connects with CDS and Duke in another way.  He had decades-long correspondence with the great photographer Paul Kwilecki whose life’s work is collected in the Duke Special Collections Library.  Paul told me he wouldn’t have done what he did, which is photograph his surroundings in Bainbridge, Georgia for several decades, or he wouldn’t have done it as well – if it hadn’t been for Vestal’s encouragement and sometimes tough tutelage.  (CDS Director Tom Rankin is currently working on a retrospective of the late Kwilecki’s career that promises to be remarkable).

Vestal’s influence as an instructor and commentator is substantial. But he is an important photographer in his own right.  This week he has a new show, Once Upon a Time in New York, opening at the Robert Mann Gallery in NYC.  There is a reception tomorrow night, October 28, 6-8pm.  We recommend everybody in proximity to NYC check it out.

-Sam Stephenson

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