When asked to make a short film to accompany the release of Sam Stephenson’s Gene Smith’s Sink, I was more than pleased. It meant an increasingly rare excuse to wander, in Midtown and through my own footage archive. I’d need to sit with Stephenson’s soft-spoken reading of excerpts from the book and search for images that could at least loosely relate to Smith’s infamous Sixth Avenue “jazz loft.” I had neither the intention nor the means to re-create New York City in the period of 1957 to 1965, and in any case I didn’t want to compete with the text by being literal. It soon became evident that the film had to be a celebration of the subtractive, something Stephenson had done so beautifully in the book itself. I use that term to mean that which is added by leaving things out. For Stephenson, who worked on his Gene Smith project for more than twenty years, this meant relinquishing the more predictable biographical tome he could have written in favor of something looser and riskier. He would evoke the photographer via the lives of people Smith intersected with and through other fruitful, if unorthodox, digressions—one being the very particular sound of a very particular bird.
In my own work, especially in collaborations with musicians, I sometimes find myself needing to strip the films down so that the visuals function less as spectacle than as bed; a place for sounds or words or just thoughts to rest. (Is there room on the Internet for such slower, quieter, even humbler propositions? Maybe, but only if we make it so.) For such projects I’ve sought out moving pictures—well, sometimes barely moving pictures—that can serve that function. Years back I filmed a piece of stray cellophane stuck to a Herald Square subway grating. The shot then rested on a shelf in my archive awaiting its cue—which turned out to be this assignment, for Stephenson’s book. While originally filming it, which took a while, I was struck and amused by what a fool I must have looked to passersby, a man bent over a tripod waiting for a piece of nothing to do something. While trying to finish Gene Smith’s Sink, tossing aside thousands of his own words, Stephenson must have been struck, amused, and terrified to let go of the weight of facts he’d compiled about W. Eugene Smith’s life, instead giving many other characters, and his book, room to move, room to breathe.
Jem Cohen is a filmmaker and photographer whose feature-length films include Museum Hours, Counting, Chain, Benjamin Smoke, Instrument, and World Without End (No Reported Incidents); his short films include Lost Book Found, Little Flags, and Anne Truitt—Working.