Gene Smith’s Sink


Notes from a Biographer

Larry Clark and W. Eugene Smith, ca. 1962.

Larry Clark and W. Eugene Smith, ca. 1962.

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. 

After a week or two, David tracked down my number. He called me at my home in Pittsboro, North Carolina: “I saw you on TV. I read your DoubleTake piece. What can we do to help?” The Reva and David Logan Foundation became the original and primary funders of a decade-long project to preserve and explore Smith’s absurd, invaluable sound recordings. My colleague Dan Partridge spent eight years cataloging Smith’s 4,500 hours of recorded sound.

My Jazz Loft Project book was published in 2009, and the exhibition opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2010 and then traveled for three years. The producer Sara Fishko created a remarkable radio series for WNYC based on the recordings. Selections of the photographs were published in, among other places, The Paris Review. There was a Web site, too. And the jazz musician Jason Moran created a multimedia concert, In My Mind, based on Smith’s photographs and audio tapes of Thelonious Monk’s loft rehearsals for his 1959 concert at Town Hall.    

This week, we can add feature documentary film to the mix. The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith will have its New York premiere at DOC NYC this Friday, November 13. Fishko directed the film, and WNYC and Lumiere Productions produced it. I’m a producer, too, mostly contributing information when needed. Vicki Goldberg appears in it, and the Logans helped make the film happen.

I’m also working to finish my last Smith book, Gene Smith’s Sink, by the end of this year. I’d hoped to have it published to coincide with the film’s release but I found that goal increasingly impossible, in part because the book I proposed in 2005—more or less a conventional biography—isn’t what has emerged. The proposal itself comprised sixty-seven pages and nineteen thousand words, almost one-sixth the suitable length of a book of this kind, with a clear outline of Smith’s life and work. And yet my current manuscript is a narrative I couldn’t have foreseen. It encompasses the stories of some of the people I’ve met over nearly two decades in Smith’s footsteps—I’ve interviewed more than five hundred people—and those are the stories that have driven me forward and sideways and sometimes backward, forming a multidirectional reflection of Smith that is more disco ball than spotlight.

* * *

In October 2011, two years after The Jazz Loft Project was published, I got an e-mail from the photographer Larry Clark. I knew something of Clark’s relationship with Smith because Clark had written about it briefly in his essay in the 1977 anthology Darkroom. Smith’s printing techniques influenced him, and he had used two variants of his portrait of Smith to illustrate his essay. But that’s all I knew. Clark and I talked on the phone a few days later, and he told me this story:

I remember I came into town and went up to his loft and just rang the bell and I told him I was, you know, a photographer and I had these pictures that I’d like him to see. He was at the top of the stairs. These stairs went way up and he was standing at the top of these stairs with his head leaning against the wall, cupping his head in his hand. He said, Oh, I’ve been in the darkroom without any sleep for a week, you know, or something, I’m so tired I can hardly stand up, you know, which is probably true because he used to go into the darkroom for long periods of time and drink scotch and print and listen to music. He said, I just don’t have time. He said, Well, if you leave them maybe I’ll get a chance to look at them. So I guess I walked up the stairs and put them at his feet, probably, and left. They were all the early Tulsa pictures. I got back to where I was staying a couple of hours later and he had called and left a message. So I called him and he said, Get your ass over here. So I went over. He wanted to know, What the fuck was this? What is this? You know, all these kids shooting drugs. He’d never seen anything like it. So we got to be friends. I went over to see him a few times and we would talk. Kinda the price of admission was I’d bring a bottle of Scotch over. We’d drink warm Scotch out of paper cups. He was a very good guy, a very good guy.

Clark sent me an extraordinary photograph of one of his meetings with Smith inside 821 Sixth Avenue. He thinks it was taken in 1962 or ’63; he was about nineteen, and he’d just hitchhiked to New York from Milwaukee with photographer Gernot Newman, who snapped the picture. Clark is dressed in a suit and tie and sits hunched, camera in hand, at Smith’s feet. Smith is reclined in a suggestive position: one arm behind his head and a bulge in his pants. Perhaps the bulge was a coincidence, simply a gathering of loose fabric. In any case, the metaphoric value is appropriate: by this point in Smith’s life—around age forty-four, several years departed from Life magazine, with several failed major projects in recent years—he adored the part of master to young aspirants. He wasn’t getting the same public affirmation he once had at Life; the legendary maverick had bucked mainstream conventions and prosperity by leaving the corporate magazine in order to protect what he called, in a letter to Elia Kazan, “the Smith standard.” But the standard also required a lot of affection, and it often came in the form of pilgrimages to his loft. Come to my feet, little novices, and bring a bottle of Scotch.

* * *

I knew about the jazz musician James “Jimmy” Stevenson early on in the project because Smith had made an iconic photograph of him playing piano in the loft. Smith included the image in his 1969 Aperture monograph and in his legendary 1971 exhibition at the Jewish Museum. His name was also jotted on many of Smith’s tape labels. Yet there is no record of Jimmy in the official American jazz annals, the encyclopedias and almanacs of jazz history. I had no idea how to find him, and many of the more famous musicians I first interviewed (I started with the bigger names, I must admit) had never heard of him. Another obscure musician, New York saxophonist Ira Jackson, originally from Detroit, was the first to tell me that Jimmy also hailed from Motor City. That was the only clue I had. In 2002, a volunteer for the JLP project, Natalie Bullock Brown, posted a note on a Detroit jazz Web site asking for information about Jimmy Stevenson.

Months passed, and we forgot about Natalie’s post. We kept trying to find Stevenson but had no luck. We learned that he had been a resident of 821 Sixth Avenue, but musicians from the loft hadn’t seen or heard from him in years. Nobody knew where he went after he left New York. Then, in early 2003, we had a wonderful surprise. Stevenson’s nephew, Tom, came across Natalie’s post while researching his grandfather, Jimmy’s father, also named James Stevenson, who had hosted a local TV show in Detroit in the early fifties. Tom was elated that someone was interested in his uncle. He put us in touch with Stevenson and his first wife, Sandy Krell, with whom he lived in the loft from the summer of 1961 to spring of 1964. It was one of the biggest breakthroughs in the project.

I visited James (as he was known in his post-loft years) and his second wife, Suzanne Roach, in Forestville, California, in the summer of 2003. They had a business selling wind chimes from a tent on the side of the road a couple of hours north of San Francisco. I learned that he was the oldest of twelve children. He and Suzanne visited Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, my home base for the project, for a week in 2004. He listened to loft tapes and told many stories, including one about driving to upstate New York for a gig with Sonny Clark. One night, they were stopped by cops on a dark country road. Even though Stevenson had been driving, the cops gave the African American Clark a hard time because he didn’t have a photo ID. Clark had several of his Blue Note albums with him, and he held them up to the police—one featured a big picture of himself on the cover—and he said, This is me. They were taken to the county jail. Sandy bailed them out the next day.

On December 12, 2009, Stevenson left me two voice mails, one on my office phone, the other on my cell phone. Both were exuberant, warm messages—he had received his copy of The Jazz Loft Project, in which he was fairly prominently featured. Every time I talked to Stevenson he asked about Dan Partridge, who organized the tape listening sessions for him in 2004, when Stevenson exclaimed, “Hearing these tapes is like somebody playing back your memories for you, only these are memories you forgot you had. But these aren’t just memories, this is real!” And now, in these phone messages, he again expressed regard for Dan. In neither message did he indicate he was ill.

Orensteen scrapI had planned to return Stevenson’s call after the New Year. But on January 3, word came from Sandy that he was on life support and would live only another few days, a victim of liver failure. On January 4, the same news came from Stevenson’s son, Star, and his nephew, Tom, who told me that Stevenson had rallied that day, that he was very weak but talking and singing. “They are all abuzz about the book” in the hospital room, he told me. On January 7, Stevenson passed away.

* * *

On December 8, 2000, I visited the saxophonist Lou Orensteen in his apartment on Fifty-Fifth Street, between Eighth and Ninth, where he’d lived for four decades. Before I sat down, he handed me a scrap of paper with the names of thirteen jazz musicians he most remembered being at 821 Sixth Avenue. He’d been thinking about it since we set up the meeting a few days earlier. In the prologue to The Jazz Loft Project, I wrote that Lou’s list stood “outside jazz history” and that it “flattens the hierarchy of the normal jazz story.” The story of jazz that prevails is one of rankings and legendary names, and not without reason: it represents the best musicians at their most spectacular recorded moments. But for each half hour of iconic music recorded for commercial purposes, there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours being played in anonymous places like 821 Sixth Avenue. That music usually wasn’t as good. But it was important. Gene Smith’s obsessive, quixotic documentary work reminds us that much of jazz history went undocumented, unknown, forgotten—as if it never happened.

Sam Stephenson is finishing a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is founder of the Durham, North Carolina–based Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, which collaborated with The Paris Review this year on “Big, Bent Ears: A Serial in Documentary Uncertainty.”