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.
Smith was born in Wichita in 1918 and graduated from high school there in 1936. His father, William, owned a grain business and was elected president of Wichita’s Board of Trade. His mother, Nettie Caplinger Smith, a devout, converted Catholic, was a photographer, and she kept a darkroom in the house. Young Gene started photographing early, and as a teenager he took pictures for the local papers, cruising around in the family station wagon with the words “Eugene Smith, Photographer” painted on the side.
I stayed in a bed-and-breakfast a block from Smith’s two childhood homes in the Riverside neighborhood, on the bank of the Arkansas River. The neighborhood was a quiet, well-to-do suburb in Smith’s day. Susan Nelson, mother of novelist Antonya Nelson, grew up down the street from the Smiths. She described to me a friendly place where nobody locked doors and it was okay to borrow books from neighbors’ shelves without asking, as long as you returned them when you were finished.
Smith’s first apertures were the windows of these two houses, the first on Woodrow and then a larger, second one across Woodrow on North River. Both had frontal views of the river, which is dammed now but would then have flowed left to right in young Gene’s field of vision as he peered over the windowsill, or when he stood on the bank amid the odor of wild onions and the sound of crickets. Both houses faced due east, with the sun rising over the river.
Two decades later, another Smith residence, a dank commercial loft at 821 Sixth Avenue, also faced due east. Smith lived there from 1957 to 1971, longer than anywhere after he left Wichita. He made twenty thousand photographs out the fourth-floor window of that loft, with traffic moving below, a consistent flow, this time from right to left. As in Riverside, people wandered into the loft unannounced, but this time thieves and junkies often walked off with his things.
In April I visited the sanctuary of St. Mary’s Cathedral, where Smith had been an altar boy. He attended the Cathedral School through eleventh grade. I found Smith’s tenth-grade Cathedral School yearbook in a musty, moldy archive room where the light bulbs were burned out. I had to prop open the door to get enough light to see, and I had to use my iPhone as a flashlight.
Construction on the cathedral was completed in 1912. The facilities manager told me the majestic sanctuary hadn’t changed since then. I stood in the back and looked toward the altar. Smith had walked down the center aisle wearing a white robe, carrying lit candles and gold crosses that were several feet taller than him. The natural lighting was spectacular. Pockets of near-blackness were offset by light streaming through stained-glass windows. The lit spaces were cradled by darkness, and the eye was directed by the patterns. The sanctuary unmistakably resembled a vintage Smith print: an African-American nurse-midwife birthing a baby in rural, poverty-stricken South Carolina in 1951, or a mother bathing her deformed child in pollution-ravaged Minamata in 1971. Using his idiosyncratic darkroom shading techniques, Smith visually swaddled and caressed these two caregivers, innocent, he felt, in a way he wasn’t. He exalted them, loved them, created odes to them, much like a nineteenth-century romantic poet might have done.
KANSAS, OF COURSE, IS KNOWN FOR TORNADOES. (L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, and I always wondered if the stage-name use of his first initial gave Smith the idea for his.) When I was in Wichita last year there was a tornado warning, and the staff at my hotel executed a tornado drill. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the sky turned as dark as night for about twenty minutes. It poured rain, there was violent thunder and lightning, and then, just as quickly, it was all over and daylight glistened on the wet streets.
Walker Percy, another Catholic-bred artist, has written that severe weather can make people feel more alive and communal. People secretly enjoy bad storms, he said; the danger can be invigorating, a rallying cry. He also thought the urgency could be an antidote to clinical depression. Certainly, Smith fed off risk for the rest of his life—sought it out in fact—and he fell into a deep depression when he didn’t feel that urgency.
In 1936, Smith’s father committed suicide after losing his grain business. He drove to a hospital parking lot two miles from home and blew open his stomach with a shotgun. Today, in Wichita’s public library, microfiche slides of local newspapers reveal that male suicides occurred weekly, even daily, in the mid-1930s. Typically, that news was mentioned discretely in the fine print of the papers’ back pages. But Mr. Smith’s tragedy was heralded in large font on the front page, above the fold, an indication of his prominence.
Seventeen-year-old Gene graduated from high school a month after his father’s death. A year later he was in New York working as a full-time photographer, having dropped out of Notre Dame. Over the next forty years, until his death in 1978, he returned to Wichita only a handful of times. In the voluminous tape recordings from his Sixth Avenue loft, he can be heard talking about his father’s suicide only once: he called it a “relief,” because he had seen his father wilting from the economic and social pressures.
In Smith’s 1975 book, Minamata, about corporate mercury poisoning in a Japanese fishing village, he compared the “impoverished,” subsistent lifestyle there to his paternal grandparents’ farm in Severy, Kansas, a crossroads community about seventy-five miles east of Wichita. He compared the bacon produced in the Japanese town to that which came from his grandparents’ smokehouse. Yet when I visited Minamata in March, nobody said the town was known for its bacon, and I didn’t see any pigs in the vicinity. But I think I know why Smith found likeness and comfort in Minamata and Severy: The two towns represented an older, simpler way of doing things. Progressive, industrial complexes were problematic and paradoxical for Smith, and that’s what he tried to reveal on an epic scale in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.
A bipolar pack rat, Smith dreamed of a simplicity he couldn’t achieve. Sometimes he talked about the danger of the firetrap loft building burning down, of the relief of losing everything and starting over. But had that happened, I think to myself, what would I have done for the past fourteen and a half years?
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.