Notes from a Biographer
November 11, 2015 | by Sam Stephenson
I was working on a book and an exhibition about W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh photographs in 1998 when I learned about his voluminous, inexplicable, irresistible collection of reel-to-reel tapes. I’d found them in his archive at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) in Tucson, Arizona. There are 1,740 of them, made roughly between 1957 and 1965 inside the loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. The simple task of counting and numbering the dusty tapes took me two weeks. It was several years—it would require a great deal of fund-raising to preserve the tapes properly—before I could listen to them.
In 1999, still not having heard the tapes, I wrote an article about Smith’s loft work for DoubleTake magazine. The article was based on his photographs and some thirty interviews I’d conducted with jazz musicians I had identified in his photos or from his chicken-scratched tape labels or who I’d learned about via word of mouth. A man named David Logan, then in his eighties, was on his treadmill in Chicago when he saw me talking about the story on CBS Sunday Morning. He impulsively called Vicki Goldberg, the venerable New York Times photography critic, who had no idea who I was. She suggested he call CCP. Read More »
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 »
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 »