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Posts Tagged ‘Minamata’

W. Eugene Smith’s Wichita

June 22, 2011 | by

A postcard of Wichita, KS, ca. 1900. The Wichita State University Library Special Collections.

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.

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Letter from Japan

March 8, 2011 | by

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 Okinawa, Japan.

Dear Nicole,

Today is my fourteenth day in Japan. The first nine days were in Tokyo, followed by four in Minamata, and now Okinawa. In a few days I’ll leave here for Saipan, Guam, and Iwo Jima, all part of my month-long Pacific tour on Gene Smith’s trail.

Photograph by W. Eugene Smith. Courtesy of Takeshi Ishikawa.

Smith often said he felt like he was from Japan in a former life. His second wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, was Japanese American, and he made three extended trips here: beginning as a combat photographer in World War II, then to Tokyo in the early sixties, and Minamata in the early seventies. I spent my first two weeks interviewing his former associates through my interpreter, Momoko Gill. The prevailing responses—some of them wordless, from body language to tears—were similar to what jazz pianist Freddie Redd once told me: “Gene Smith is just a sweet memory.”

In New York, Smith’s appeal wore thin among those that relied on him or expected things from him—publishers, gallery owners, benefactors, people from the “official” side of things. I don’t blame them. He couldn’t finish anything he started. He wrote long, complaining letters to people he barely knew, copying paragraphs verbatim from letters he’d written to others. He’d fake injuries for sympathy. His quixotic grandiosity—linked to feverish moral imperatives, alcoholism, amphetamine addiction, and bipolar disorder—went from valiant to insufferable. But over the past two weeks, I haven’t heard anything that indicates he behaved like that in Japan. Nor did he with jazz musicians and underground characters in the New York loft. He drank heavily in both places, though. I’m left wondering about the relation, for Smith, between people in Japan and the transient loft figures.

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