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.