W. Eugene Smith


Notes from a Biographer

W. Eugene Smith at a photography workshop in Eugene, Oregon, 1966. Photographs by Don Getsug.

Since January 1997, I’ve been studying the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith. I was thirty years old when I started, and now I’m forty-four. If this wasn’t my calling, God help me.

In 1998, while researching a freelance magazine assignment on Smith’s 1950s Pittsburgh photographs in his archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, I stumbled on 1,740 dusty, moldy reels of mysterious tape made in a New York City loft building. What became known as the Jazz Loft Project at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, where I worked, began that day.

Smith’s strange, obsessive achievement between 1957 and 1965 in an after-hours jazz haunt in Manhattan’s flower district—forty thousand photos and four thousand hours of audio recordings—spurred me to visit twenty-one states and interview more than four hundred people. I’ve made 115 trips to New York City over a span of time that can be measured by telephones and storefronts: I called Robert Frank from a cold, indestructible pay phone at the end of Bleecker, near CBGB; Roy Haynes on a Motorola StarTAC from a brownstone on 9th Street, a few doors from Balducci’s; and, a few weeks ago, Mary Frank on my iPhone from Spoon in Chelsea.

Smith is often portrayed as a classic midcentury male artist-egotist, and not without reason. But there was something selfless about his work in this old Sixth Avenue loft building. The people that passed through that space—some famous, most obscure—have sustained me all these years. Perhaps it’s this perpetually unfolding documentary quality that makes the loft work his greatest.

A year ago, a decade’s worth of research on the Jazz Loft Project culminated with my book, a public-radio series with WNYC, a traveling exhibition, and a Web site. Now I’m working on a biography of Smith, and the trail continues. In late February, I will embark on a five-week visit to the Pacific Islands, where Smith made combat photographs during World War II, and to Japan, where he photographed Hitachi City in the early sixties and Minamata a decade later. There are some fifty more people I want to interview as well. The detective work is intoxicating, opening up unexpected worlds outside of Smith’s immediate circle.

This past October, I met the seventy-six-year-old jazz pianist Dorrie Glenn Woodson in New York. She has lived in San Antonio for the past thirty years and was back in the city visiting her daughter. Just before Thanksgiving, I caught up with her again for a long chat on the phone (a landline from my home in Pittsboro, North Carolina). Dorrie lived in Gene Smith’s flower-district loft space for two years before he did. She moved in with her first husband, photographer Harold Feinstein, a longtime associate of Smith’s, in 1955. She gigged regularly in the Village and studied with Hall Overton, a revered teacher who shared the fourth floor in the loft building. In 1956, she took a well-paying gig touring the Sheraton Hotel chain on the East Coast.

Dorrie became pregnant in 1957, and she and Harold began looking for a more suitable place to raise a child. Before they moved out, they threw a dinner party that was attended by Anaïs Nin, who wrote about the visit in her diaries, now published in volume 6, marking the years 1955 to 1965:

Last night dinner at Harold Feinstein’s. A long loft room, all across one floor, floor uneven with holes. Harold tall and round-faced showing his work. His wife pale and blond, pregnant. In the front of the room all his photographic equipment. In the middle of the room, a double bed. In the back a stove, a table, an icebox. The dispossessed life of the bohemians I knew in Paris. The talk was rich. On the floor above him, live jazz musicians. That night crystallized my vision of jazz music linked to a way of life, another vision of life. It has passed into the bloodstream and separated people from material ambition. It is the only rebellion against conformity, automatism, commerce, middle-class values and death of the spirit. It all made a synthesis, Really the Blues, and Solo, and The Man with the Golden Arm, and The Wild Party. The only poetry in America, the only passion. I am not speaking of delinquency, or the lower depths of Nelson Algren, but a poetry, a heightened state, a search for ecstasy, the equivalent of surrealism. And the equivalent of jazz in writing.

…Big Business and Politics are twins, they are the monsters who kill everything, corrupt everything. Why not pay attention to the artists who humanize, keep the sources of feeling alive, keep us alive?

I mentioned this passage to Dorrie, and she responded with wry chagrin: “Nin relegated me to pale blond pregnant wife status. She’s talking about jazz in our loft all night, and I’m a working jazz pianist and she totally tuned me out of the conversation. In her mind, the jazz musicians were the men upstairs. It wasn’t just the men who made it difficult for women, it was the whole culture of the times, and Nin was no different in my brief experience with her. She was probably an important role model for many women, in that she lived her beliefs and pursued and realized her dreams. Jeez, now that I said that, isn’t that enough? I shouldn’t be so hard on her. It’s just that personally she had never entered my mind as being a feminist. I was living a very conflicted, difficult existence, trying to be a jazz musician, and I didn’t see Anaïs doing anything that helped open any doors for me or other women at the time. She did help herself, though, and maybe that was enough.”

See also: “Sonny Clark” and “Dorrie Glenn Woodson.”

Sam Stephenson is the author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Check back soon for more of Stephenson’s dispatches.