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 »
March 20, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
Mississippi and New Orleans were on my horizon. Light in August and Streetcar Named Desire were on my mind. That is to say, Gene Smith was back in the mix. The morality and narrative techniques of Faulkner and Williams influenced his photography: he taped the text of Faulkner’s Nobel speech to the wall above his desk in his dilapidated Sixth Avenue loft and considered Williams’s oft-maligned, rarely seen Camino Real a pinnacle of American theater. Plus, he once made a portrait of Williams in a pool, swimming the backstroke naked with an apparent erection (try that aquatic feat, literary lads). The fog of Smith had returned to my Southern holiday road trip.
After an overnight stop in Mobile, Alabama, my destination was Laurel, Mississippi, south of Jackson and north of New Orleans. Laurel was the fictional hometown of Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois and her sister, Stella, and the site of their family estate, Belle Reve. It was Blanche’s loss of Belle Reve after the war that sent her to steamy, bedraggled New Orleans to stay with Stella and her ape-husband Stanley Kowalski. The rest is theater history. I wanted to spend some time in Laurel and then follow Blanche’s path into New Orleans. Read More »
February 28, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
A week before I began my holiday road trip in December, I learned that in 1936 Time Life’s founder and publisher, Henry Luce, and his wife, the flamboyant Clare Booth Luce, purchased a three-thousand-acre former slave plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina, only twenty miles from the poverty-stricken region where Smith made his classic “Nurse Midwife” for Life in 1951. The Luces made Mepkin Plantation their vacation estate.
Did Smith know this? Is that why he fought so hard to celebrate the African American Maude Callen amid pages of Life’s whitewashed Madison Avenue ads, to shove the contradictions in Luce’s face? It’s hard to know, but I think probably not. Smith left behind voluminous bitter letters to replaceable bureaucrats, but I haven’t seen any to moguls. He tended to make dragons out of windmills.
What is known is that, in 1949, the Luces donated part of Mepkin Plantation to the Trappist Order of Gethsemani of Kentucky, creating Mepkin Abbey. When Henry died, in 1967, his body was laid to rest in the property’s gardens. After Clare’s death in 1987, her body was buried next to his. As a serial graveyard explorer, I knew I had to see these graves, which, together with Callen’s abandoned and crumbling clinic, form an unlikely set of Berkeley County monuments to Life magazine’s midcentury power. Read More »
January 30, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
On Tuesday morning, December 11, I drove a rented 2013 Chevrolet Impala out of Chapel Hill on I-40 East, the first miles of a twenty-two-day road trip around the South, with points as far west as New Orleans and Shreveport. These were the first Christmas plans I’d made on my own in forty-six years.
Without children, my holidays since 1995 have alternated between my parents’ house in eastern North Carolina and my in-laws’ in Pittsburgh. Over a nearly identical duration, I’ve been researching the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith. Now I’m working to finish my last book on him. The first stop on this Southern holiday journey is Berkeley County, South Carolina, a former slave-plantation region near the coast where Smith photographed his 1951 Life essay, “Nurse Midwife.”
The truth is that I’m tired of Gene Smith. Read More »
August 20, 2012 | by Sam Stephenson
I arrived at the spring-training complex of the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, Florida, around ten A.M. It would be a typical mid-nineties March day under a relentless sun. I was looking for Charlie Montoyo, the forty-six-year-old manager of the Rays’ top minor-league affiliate, the AAA Durham Bulls.
Outfielder Jeff Salazar pointed me toward the “half-field,” a regulation infield with no outfield on the outskirts of the sprawling complex. A chain-link fence separated the infield dirt from a swamp. There, I found Jamie Nelson, catching coordinator for the Rays organization, tossing pitches to Venezuelan catcher José Lobatón, who was crouched in full gear. He caught the balls, exploded out of his position behind home plate—helmet and face mask falling off each time—and threw darts to second base, where Montoyo straddled the bag and gloved the throws, then tossed the balls underhand into a rolling cart.
The three men executed this drill for fifteen minutes, saying nothing. I considered returning to the car for more sunscreen. Then I thought about “deep languor,” a term Richard Ford once used to describe the pleasant monotony of baseball and its routines. Read More »