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.