Posts Tagged ‘W. Eugene Smith’
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 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?
March 8, 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 Okinawa, Japan.
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.
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.
January 26, 2011 | by Sam Stephenson
Monk called the tune “Two Timer”; Clark gave it a new name so he could claim composer’s royalties. It was the move of a desperate, depleted junky. (W. Eugene Smith had cameras, lenses, and other equipment stolen from his loft by jazz junkies all the time, but, an addict himself, he wasn’t one to judge. The thefts would leave him both distraught and ambivalent.) According to Robin D. G. Kelley’s remarkable recent biography of Monk, the elder master treated Clark like a “troubled younger brother,” and he never did anything about the stolen tune. Chances are that by the time Monk heard McLean’s record and realized what had happened, Clark was dead, or in some other condition that made a reprimand irrelevant.
In the last eighteen months of Clark’s life, he would climb to daylight for brief periods, breath clean air, play some beautiful music, and then sink to lower and lower depths. In the August 1962 issue of the invaluable, idiosyncratic Canadian jazz magazine, Coda, there was this report from New York by Fred Norsworthy:
One of the saddest sights these days is the terrible condition of one of the nation’s foremost, and certainly original pianists. Having been around for many years he came into his own in 1959 and no one deserved it more than he. I feel that something should be done about drug addiction before we lose many more artists. I saw him several times in the past three months and was shocked to see one of our jazz greats in such pitiful shape. Unfortunately, the album dates that he keeps getting only help his addiction get worse instead of better. Whether or not he licks this problem at this stage of the game remains to be seen. In some cases people refuse help and the loss of a close friend was no help either. If anything he took a turn for the worse and disappeared for 3 weeks. However right now should he die it will at least be better than living a slow death with no relief in sight.
The pianist is almost certainly Sonny Clark. That same month, he cut two classic Blue Note albums under the leadership of saxophonist Dexter Gordon, Go and A Swinging Affair. When Clark died five months later, Gordon remembered these sessions in a letter to Blue Note impresarios Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff: Clark had “almost totally given up” on his life, Gordon wrote. Yet judging from the surviving albums, he still cooked on piano. Several of Clark’s solos are top notch, but in this rhythm section with Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums, he conducts a clinic on how to play sensitive, sparkling piano accompaniment behind a soloing saxophonist, in this case the atmospheric Gordon. Clark didn’t appear to give up on anything musically. Many years later Gordon remembered Go as among his career favorites.