December 8, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
It’s sixty-two degrees and raining in downtown Durham, North Carolina, on a Tuesday in mid-October. At noon members of the Branford Marsalis Quartet gather at the former St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal church, built in 1891, now converted into the Hayti Heritage Center, an arts-and-community nonprofit. Their goal is to record a new album over the next few days.
When Marsalis moved his family to Durham from New York a decade ago, the local press assumed he was replacing the retiring director of Duke’s jazz department, saxophonist Paul Jeffrey. But Marsalis, who'd grown up in Louisiana, simply wanted to return to the South and picked Raleigh-Durham because the area had an airport large enough to get him anywhere he needed to go. Later, he began teaching part-time in the noted jazz program at the historically black North Carolina Central University, which is a mile down the road from Hayti.
The original St. Joseph’s sanctuary remains intact: a wood-plank stage, hardwood pews, a balcony, chandeliers, and lots of stained glass. Marsalis began recording albums here in 2006 when he noticed that the room had a unique quality: there is no reverb at low decibel levels; it grows gradually with the sound.
June 22, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
Last year I visited Wichita, Kansas, for the first time, a guest of the Ulrich Museum of Art, where I gave a talk on W. Eugene Smith, a native son. At dinner afterward, the photographer Larry Schwarm asked, “Do you have pictures of Smith all over your house?” I’ve come to expect the question of whether I identify with Smith’s obsessions, but it had never been framed like this. I paused, pondered, then answered that I didn’t have any pictures of Smith in my house. I do have pictures of Joseph Mitchell, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Emmylou Harris, and the hand of Wilco’s drummer, Glenn Kotche. But none of Smith.
I visited Wichita again last April to give another talk at the Ulrich. Like the first trip, I spent several extra days soaking up the town and researching its history, trying to learn as much as I could about Smith’s roots from the vantage of nearly a century later. Nabokov once wrote that examining his childhood was “the next best thing to probing one’s eternity.” But what about probing someone else’s childhood, someone long dead? Rather than my memory or other people’s memories (there aren’t many alive who can attest to Smith’s childhood), I’m investigating faint footprints—artifacts, news clippings, whatever I can find. It seems flimsy, never quite enough.
Between 1900 and 1930, Wichita’s population grew almost five-fold, from 24,000 to 110,000. It was a pioneer town. With few binding traditions and conventions, anything could happen. People could move to town from the farm and figure out ways to make money. It became known as “Magic City.” It also became known as the “Air Capitol of the World,” home to Cessna, Beech, and other aircraft manufacturers during the ascent of that industry.
May 26, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
The photographs in Mary Frank’s current solo show at DC Moore Gallery were made over the last three years, yet they evoke decades of history. The items in the photographs form a kind of collage: she composed new paintings directly onto the planks of her studio floor, then arranged sculptures, other works of art (some dating back fifty years), rocks, glass, torn paper, fragments of paintings, and fire around the new painting. It’s like she created abstract, autobiographical stage sets. Then she photographed the results.
I first met Mary through her cousin Paul Weinstein. Their grandfather, Gregory Weinstein, had emigrated from Russia in the 1870s and started a multilingual printing company on Varick Street, a business Paul still runs today. I met him in the early days of the Jazz Loft Project through David Levy, the former director of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. David told me that Paul was “a finisher,” someone who could help me organize a complicated New York project from my home base in North Carolina. That proved to be true: among other things, the seed of a four-year collaboration with Sara Fishko and WNYC on the Jazz Loft Radio Project came from a public event Paul threw for me at the Center for Jewish History on Sixteenth Street in 2005.
One night around that time, Paul and I were having dinner downtown. I told him I’d spent the afternoon with photographer Robert Frank in his Bleecker Street studio. “My cousin Mary used to be married to him,” Paul said nonchalantly. I startled to attention, the small town of New York City revealing itself to me once again. Until then I only knew Mary Frank as a figure in a photograph. She was the beautiful, exhausted young mother in the car with her two children at the end of Robert Frank’s The Americans—the woman keeping their kids fed, clean, and happy on the road, while her husband completed the work that would make him immortal in the history of photography.
April 20, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
In the fall of 1958, things weren’t going well for eighteen-year-old Tommy Johns. He had graduated from Croton-Harmon High School that year and was working as a janitor, while living with his mother, stepfather, and four younger siblings in an unheated, drafty wood house about two hundred yards from the river and railroad tracks. His parents had money for beer, cheap liquor, and little else. One morning, Tommy got up, put on his secondhand Swedish army coat, told his family he was going to the corner store for cigarettes, and hitchhiked the fifty miles to Manhattan.
Let out of the car in Greenwich Village, he started wandering up Sixth Avenue, choosing that route for no particular reason—maybe just because the cars were going that way. When he crossed the intersection at Twenty-eighth Street, he was surprised to see the familiar figure of W. Eugene Smith standing on the curb next to a tractor-trailer.
Tommy had gone to school with Smith’s son, Pat, and daughter, Marissa, in Croton. He had been over to their spacious, stone home in a quiet, leafy neighborhood on the other side of town. Tommy knew that Mr. Smith had been a famous photographer for Life magazine, covering World War II and other important subjects, yet here he was, standing on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette and looking forlorn.
March 30, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
March 26, marked the centennial of Tennessee Williams’s birth. The Paris Review celebrates with an appreciation by Sam Stephenson, through the eyes of W. Eugene Smith.
In December 1966 or January 1967, W. Eugene Smith was in his fifth floor loft space at 821 Sixth Avenue. Forty-eight years old, he was down and out. He drank a fifth of scotch and ate countless amphetamines every day. His live-in girlfriend of seven years, Carole Thomas, was loyal but growing weary. He maintained grand, alluring ambitions, but nobody would hire him for fear of igniting an impossible odyssey. The underworld jazz scene in the building had fizzled out two years earlier. The neighborhood had a daytime retail life, but otherwise the place was desolate: hot dog wrappers and paper cups blowing down the street.
March 23, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
Stephenson has been blogging for The Daily about W. Eugene Smith, the subject of his forthcoming biography. Here, he writes to managing editor Nicole Rudick from the island of Guam.
I am writing you from my hotel in Guam rather than taking a day trip to Iwo Jima. The visit was canceled by the American and Japanese embassies, because of the earthquake and nuclear disaster in Japan. The Japanese government opens the uninhabited island to civilians only one day a year, and I’ve been planning my month-long Pacific journey in Smith’s footsteps around this year’s date, March 16, for the past ten months. I’m disappointed, but I understand the decision. A government-sanctioned sightseeing trip to a remote island seems inappropriate while Japan is undergoing the current tragedy, no matter that 140 Americans had gathered here for the trip, with a mirror group in Tokyo.
It means I’ll have to come back next year. Smith made stunning photographs of the Iwo Jima battle, and I can’t finish this biography without seeing that tiny piece of volcanic rock poking up out of the ocean. It measures only four and half miles long and two and a half miles wide, yet we (Americans) had eight hundred ships and two hundred thousand troops off its shores in 1945. The absurdity of that reality must have impacted young Smith, who was from landlocked Kansas: We’re fighting the war of all wars over this?