November 5, 2014 | by Sam Stephenson
On reimagining what a biography can look like.
In December 2012, I spent several days in Laurel, Mississippi, with my wife, researching her grandmother’s family history and childhood. I also did a lot of thinking about Stella and Blanche DuBois, the sisters who, as imagined by Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire, also hailed from Laurel. They would have been roughly the same age as my wife’s grandmother. When we left Laurel, we followed Stella and Blanche’s path down to New Orleans. While in the city, we made several visits to Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter; I’d seen a brick of a book there called Tennessee Williams: Notebooks, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton, and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Williams has been on my mind for the nearly two decades I’ve been researching W. Eugene Smith, who declared that the plays of Williams were a major influence on his photojournalism. I thought I knew the names of all the prominent Williams scholars, and I’d heard in 2011 that John Lahr was working on a major biography for Norton. So this huge volume of Williams’s notebooks (it weighs close to four pounds; Lahr’s recently published Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh weighs just over two, by comparison) and its editor were a bit of a mystery. A one-line bio on the jacket flap simply describes Thornton as “a writer and independent scholar,” with no other credentials and no photograph.
The book was puzzling in structure and detail, too. Williams’s handwritten diary entries are transcribed in chronological order on the right side of each spread—on the odd-numbered pages—in a font that couldn’t be larger than eight or nine points. On the left side of each spread are meticulous annotations by Thornton in an even smaller font, maybe six points, that correspond to numbers on the opposite page. The results are parallel tracks of text: one, a series of odd, cryptic personal notes jotted by Williams over the course of his life; the other, 1,090 annotations, occupying equal space, that contextualize Williams’s arcane references many decades later. All told, I later learned, the book contains 265,000 words. Read More »
September 18, 2014 | by Sam Stephenson
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Irish playwright Seán O’Casey’s death. Sam Stephenson tracks his appearances in W. Eugene Smith’s archive.
On August 15, 1965, W. Eugene Smith was up late, as usual, in his dingy fourth-floor loft in the wholesale flower district, a neighborhood desolate after dark. He was working on the first issue of Sensorium, his new “magazine of photography and other arts of communication,” a hopeful platform free of commercial expectations and pressures. He was editing a submission by the writer E.G. “Red” Valens, whom he had met in 1945 when both were war correspondents in the Pacific. Despite the late hour, Smith decided to give his old friend a call.
Valens’s wife answered the phone just before the fifth ring. She’d been asleep. She gave the phone to her husband. He’d been asleep, too.
“Good morning,” said a groggy Valens.
“You don’t stay up as late as you used to,” joked Smith.
He then apologized for calling so late. Valens wasn’t irritated. He even resisted Smith’s offer to call back at a more reasonable hour.
Thirty-six minutes and nineteen seconds later, the pair said good-bye and hung up. We know this because Smith taped the phone call. When he died in 1978, this clip was among 4,500 hours of recordings he made from roughly 1957 to 1966. Read More »
June 3, 2014 | by Sam Stephenson
A few years ago I found a used, first-edition hardcover of Dr. Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s 1975 book, Coltrane: A Biography, online for $150. I had long admired its feverish, street-pulpy story about the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose powerful music increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness before he died in 1967, at age forty. Posthumously, the mythology and exaltation of Coltrane, as well as his musical influence, only grew. But by that point, Simpkins had already researched and written Coltrane’s story, expressing an uncompromising, unapologetic black voice rarely found in the annals of jazz before or since.
I forked up the money for the hardback. The dust jacket bears an impressionistic black-and-white painting of Coltrane playing soprano saxophone. The rounded, sans serif font resembles that of Soul Train, the popular TV show that premiered in 1971. On the back cover is a photograph of a young, Simpkins sporting a West African dashiki shirt, a high Afro, thick sideburns, and a beard.
Simpkins’s idea for the book was conceived during his senior year at Amherst, in 1969; he worked on it during breaks from Harvard Medical School in the early seventies. Simpkins possessed no credentials in jazz or literature. The publisher of the original hardcover is Herndon House; quick Google and Library of Congress searches yield no other books from that publisher. There are identical typographical errors in all three editions—first and second hardback, and paperback. (Sarah Vaughan’s name, for instance, is spelled once as “Vaughn,” and Nesuhi Ertegun appears as “Nehusi.”) All indications point to the book having been self-published, the original piece preserved in two later editions. Read More »
April 11, 2014 | by Sam Stephenson
On photographer W. Eugene Smith’s unseen opus.
On September 2, 1958, W. Eugene Smith’s passport was stamped at the airport in Geneva, Switzerland. Hired by General Dynamics, he was there to photograph the United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, known as “Atoms for Peace.” He was to be paid $2,500 for two weeks of work (about $20,000 in 2014 money), plus a $20 per diem. Commercial work wasn’t Smith’s preference, but he needed the money. He needed some distance from New York, too.
A week later, on September 9, Smith’s long-awaited extended essay on the city of Pittsburgh hit newsstands in Popular Photography’s Photography Annual 1959. It was the culmination of a three-and-a-half-year odyssey that began with a three-week assignment and led to 22,000 exposed negatives, two thousand of which he said were “valid” for his essay. He staked his reputation on the work, evoking Joyce, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Beethoven, among others, as influences for the “layers” intended in his Pittsburgh layouts. Two consecutive Guggenheim fellowships (the first one coinciding with his friend Robert Frank’s fellowship for the work that became The Americans) further raised expectations. After turning down $20,000 from both Life and Look magazines when they would not agree to his demands for editorial control, Popular Photography offered to put thirty-six pages of their Annual 1959 at his disposal for $3,500. Smith accepted.
Now the anticipated magnum opus was set to arrive. But rather than stick around to toast his achievement, Smith jetted to Geneva. He had anticipated a Pittsburgh flameout earlier that summer, in a letter to his uncle, Jesse Caplinger: “The seemingly eternal, certainly infernal Pittsburgh project—the sagging, losing effort to make the first of its publication forms so right in measure to the standards I had set for it … it is a failure.” Later, he wrote his friend Ansel Adams to “apologize” for “the debacle of Pittsburgh as printed.” Read More »
November 20, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
In early March of 1955, W. Eugene Smith steered his overstuffed station wagon into the steel city of Pittsburgh. He’d been on the road all day, leaving that morning from Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where he lived in a large, comfortable house with his wife and four children, plus a live-in housekeeper and her daughter. He was thirty-six, and a fuse was burning inside him. He had recently quit Life, after a successful but troubled twelve years, and joined Magnum, and this was his first freelance assignment. He had been hired by renowned filmmaker and editor Stefan Lorant to shoot a hundred scripted photographs for a book commemorating Pittsburgh’s bicentennial, a job Lorant expected to take three weeks. On Smith’s horizon, however, was one of the most ambitious projects in the history of photography: he wanted to create a photo story to end all photo stories. His station wagon was packed with some twenty pieces of luggage, a phonograph, and hundreds of books and vinyl records—he was prepared for an eruption.
A hundred and eighty miles southwest of Pittsburgh, in Athens, Ohio, James Karales was finishing up a degree in photography at Ohio University. He had studied Smith’s work in class; Smith was a hero. While Smith was crawling all over Pittsburgh, day and night, several cameras wrapped around his neck, fueled by amphetamines, alcohol, and quixotic fevers, Karales was getting his diploma. Little did Karales know, his path and Smith’s were about to become one, and he would get an education no college could provide. Read More »
August 7, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
For the past thirty years, the photographer Hiroshi Watanabe has split his time between Tokyo and Los Angeles. I met him at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park when he reported for his first day of work on the Bull City Summer project. He’s a compact man who moves carefully but fluidly; at age sixty-two, he resembles a boxing trainer or a retired gymnast. On meeting, he said to me, “I have a question—why did you invite me? I don’t follow baseball and I’ve never photographed it.” He already knew the answer—I think he wanted to find out if I did.
A few days later, during one of that week’s many rain delays, Hiroshi wandered into the dark, narrow room inside the left-field wall, behind the manually operated scoreboard on the thirty-foot Blue Monster. In this barnlike storage space, placard numerals are lifted and installed in the appropriate slots, facing outward into the stadium, to indicate runs, hits, and errors during games. Here’s how Hiroshi described what he found there:
I saw all these panels with numbers on them. I realized that the number zero had a certain translucent quality the other numbers didn’t have. The paint on the zero has been faded by more exposure to sunlight. This fading has made beautiful patterns—maplike, veinlike cracks. The passage of time offers different textures on different materials. In the scoreboard numbers, it’s just faded paint. Only zero shows the passing of time I’m looking for. Read More »