I've been researching and collecting Smith's life ever since my wife, Laurie, gave me a camera for Christmas ten years ago. When the owner of the camera shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, asked me what I'd be taking pictures of, I told him Pittsburgh. The city has captivated me since we first visited Laurie's family there a dozen years ago, and I'd just started researching its history and landscape. Have you ever seen Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh's photographs he asked. The previous night he'd caught an American Masters documentary on Smith and it mentioned a big project he did on the city in the 1950s. I left the shop and walked around the corner to the public library to look for more information.
Smith went to Pittsburgh in 1955 for a three-week freelance assignment to make one hundred photos for a book commemorating the city's bicentennial. He'd quit his job at LIFE magazine, where his photo essays had made him legendary, because of escalating editorial struggles: He wanted to change the world with his photographs and LIFE wanted reliable staffers who met deadlines. Smith's burgeoning ambitions outstripped the Pittsburgh assignment pretty quickly, and over the next four years he made 21,000 photographs of the city. At one point he had 2,000 5x7 work prints pinned to walls and bulletin boards all over his studio. His Pittsburgh opus may have existed in that form. But it was utterly unpublishable, and when 88 of the images were published in Popular Photograph's 1959 Photography Annual, he called the results a "debacle" and a "failure."
The U.S. Steel pictures, fragments of his unfinished Pittsburgh project, are part of Smith's archives at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. Two eighteen-wheel trucks delivered 44,000 pounds of his things there when he died in 1978, at fifty-nine, according to his doctors of "everything" (cirrhosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, an enlarged heart). There are hundreds of 10,000 word letters to friends as well as people he barely knew, 25,000 vinyl records, as many as a million negatives and contact sheets, thousands of 3x5 cards filled with chicken-scratch notes to himself, along with brilliant fragments from the unfinished Pittsburgh project and 1,600 reels of tape from his Manhattan loft--two bodies of work that have kept me busy for ten years. His work has become my work.
For now, the sink is in the basement where I work. When Smith--his reputation deteriorating from compassionate maverick to irresponsible lunatic, and totally broke (his family's live-in housekeeper had to take a second job to help pay bills)--left his family in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, in 1957 and moved into a loft building in Manhattan's old wholesale-flower district, he took the sink with him. There's 16mm film footage of Smith using the sink to develop and rinse prints in the loft. The building was a late-night jazz haunt, and Smith made about 40,000 photographs there. He documented Thelonius Monk, Zoot Sims, Paul Bley, Roy Haynes, Roland Kirk, Chick Corea, and hundreds of others in jam sessions, rehearsals, and casual conversations.
He also made about 3,000 hours of astonishing audiotapes. After moving in, Smith wired the building from the sidewalk to the fifth floor. He recorded Martin Luther King and President Kennedy giving speeches on radio and tv, Jason Robards reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's essay "The Crack-Up," and late-night callers to Long John Nebel's radio show who claimed to have seen UFOs and been abducted by aliens. Smith also kept the tapes rolling when not much was happening. On one tape from 1962, you can hear a neighborhood beat cop wander into the loft and Smith, clearly familiar with the officer, says proudly, "You know, my son Pat got married last weekend."
Pat, now sixty-three and a retired race-car mechanic, and his sister Juanita, are the protagonists of Smith's photograph The Walk to Paradise Garden, which closed Edward Steichen's famous 1955 Family of Man show at the Museum of Modern Art. On one of the unlabeled loft tapes there is a surreal, twenty-eight minute monologue in which Smith breathlessly describes his efforts to maneuver his wife, mother, and eldest daughter out of the house so he could set up his two younger children for the picture in the yard outside: "I kept only the younger children with me, for I believed they would comprehend least the drama that was taking place within me. How strange, how contradictory, here in the quiet of my home, with two of my beloved children peacefully playing in an adjoining room, with music the only and welcome intruding sound, how strange that in this kindly setting I could be living an emotional and physical crisis more personally terrifying in its potency than any I had ever previously encountered in a life far from tranquil. And this hinged on the mere making of a photograph."
Shortly after Pat's wedding, to his high-school sweetheart, Phyllis, Smith began calling them in the middle of the night, telling them good-bye, saying he was committing suicide. After each call Pat and Phyllis would race down to Smith's flower-district loft, only to find another false alarm. Finally Pat flatly told his father he wouldn't respond to any more suicide calls.
Not infrequently I wonder if I should be doing something else, doing my own work from scratch, as I intended a decade ago in Pittsburgh. Also not infrequently, I feel that Smith has left melodramatic breadcrumbs--like the monologue of the making of The Walk to Paradise Garden--for a gullible researcher to follow. But I believe his melodrama sells him short. His core material is too good to not keep going, and it leads me in too many interesting directions.
I've interviewed 237 survivors from Smith's old loft scene. Some of them are famous, but most of them are unrecorded in the official annals of music, photography, or anything else. It is the wonder and fortune of my work. This past January, I was in a four-hundred-square-foot room on the ninth floor of an old apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, interviewing a youthful eighty-year-old trumpet player who had lived in that room for thirty-five years. Among stacks of prostitute catalogues and layers of accumulated New York City apartment grit, the trumpeter had an upright piano and on top of it was a list of New Year's Resolutions. Number one was "Get more gigs."
When I emerged from the interview, night had fallen and it was pouring rain, and as I darted down the wet subway stairs carrying my equipment, my left foot slipped and hammered into the next step, snapping two bones in my ankle. I spent overnight on a gurney in the emergency room at St. Vincent's. Next to me was an elderly black woman who had been hit by a taxi, and like me, she was filled with painkillers. "These injuries," she kept saying, "will keep us from doing things that would have hurt us worse."
Read more in Issue 3
|Fiction||Testimony by Keith Lee Morris|
|IYSSSS||Gene Smith's Sink by Sam Stephenson|
|Fiction||The Month Girls by Martha Cooley|
|Poetry||The Last DJ Spinoza by Eugene Ostashevsky|
|Fiction||Quiet Men by Leslie Jamison|
|Focus||Battlegrounds Real and Fictional by Daniel Alarcón|
|Focus||To Burn the City by Julio Durán|
|Focus||The Complicity of Silence by Santiago Roncagliolo|
|IYSSSS||Everything Is Illuminated : My Love Affair with CSI by Delia Falconer|