on The Jazz Loft Project, photographs and tapes of W. Eugene Smith, by Sam Stephenson (Knopf)

In 1957 Eugene Smith moved into a dilapidated 4th-floor loft at 821 Sixth Avenue, between 28th and 29th Streets in Manhattan. He was 38 years old, at the height of his notoriety as a photojournalist. In 1955, after quitting his lucrative, high-profile job with Life magazine in a squabble over editorial control of his photo-essay on Albert Schweitzer, Smith spent a year in Pittsburgh where he shot 22,000 images of the city’s life for his own book project. Life and Look each offered him $20,000 ($154,000 in 2009 dollars) for the photos. He refused to complete a deal, and also failed to finish the project due to what Gilles Mora, in his essay “W. Eugene Smith: The Arrogant Martyr,” called “his chronic inability to make use of the opportunity when it was offered.”

SmithCover.jpgEstranged from his family in Croton-on-Hudson (wife, four children) and his lover in Philadelphia (another child), low on cash, emotionally distraught, and hooked on amphetamines and alcohol, Smith moved his equipment and files to the five-story loft walkup built in 1853 where fellow residents, mainly jazz musicians, were turning the building into a rehearsal and jamming space. Music meant something to Smith: when he died in 1978, he had 18 dollars and 25,000 records.

“In the loft, Smith was devastated and depleted by the unfinished Pittsburgh project,” writes Sam Stephenson in his introduction to The Jazz Loft Project. “Nobody would hire him for fear of triggering another quixotic odyssey. He had no assignments to document the outside world. So he turned his documentary fevers to the space and time right around him.”

SmithAtWindow.jpgHis window overlooking Sixth Avenue became the pivot point of his new project. He shot the life in the streets, and then documented the life of the hundreds of musicians who arrived at all hours to play. By 1965 the jazz scene shifted elsewhere (Smith lived there until 1971), but by then Smith had made not only 40,000 images but also 1,740 reel tapes. With what Mora calls a “voyeuristic mania,” Smith wired the top three floors of the building with microphones and mobile audio equipment. His prints hung everywhere, in the rooms and stairways, layer on layer.

On one of those tapes, Smith is heard saying, “See, actually, I’m doing a book about this building itself … out the window and within the building, because it’s quite a weird, interesting story.”

SmithWhiteRose.jpgNo “book” developed. Smith’s jazz and New York street photos came to be regarded as another of his passionately conceived but predictably unachieved projects. In The Jazz Loft Project, Stephenson doesn’t aim to produce the book that Smith couldn’t deliver, even as he selects and edits 232 key images, a few of which have been previously celebrated in earlier Smith retrospective collections, such as Mora’s and John T. Hill’s splendid W. Eugene Smith, Photographs 1934-1975 (Harry N. Abrams, 1998). But Stephenson does successfully capture the weird, interesting story.

In this respect, there are two distinct “Jazz Projects.” From Smith’s interminable audio archives, Stephenson gives us transcriptions of taped dialog between Smith and some of the characters who haunted the building. Smith also taped hundreds of hours of radio broadcasts, and Stephenson uses them to color the historical moment – such as a segment of Edward R. Murrow’s Small World in which Tennessee Williams, Yukio Mishima, and British film critic Dilys Powell discuss Japanese character and Shakespeare’s plays.

SmithMonk.jpgFor his text Stephenson interviewed 330 people who visited the site. The reflections and anecdotes from those talks illuminate the book. Using all of the materials at his disposal, Stephenson reconstructs events that occurred on specific dates: jam sessions, arguments, overdoses, comic interludes. One especially hilarious conversation occurs between Smith and a curious New York cop who seems to find the whole place astonishing. The chapter “Anatomy of a Jam Session” includes dialog and photos of Roy Haynes, Roland Kirk, Lee Konitz, Don Cherry, Zoot Sims and others. Another chapter is devoted to Thelonius Monk.

The photographs, of course, are the centerpieces. I can't imagine anyone taking issue with the quality of production here. Stephenson incorporates photographs of Smith's reel tape box covers, many with his notations. Peter Anderson's book design handsomely integrates Stephenson's varied text (interviews, short quotations, extended description, captions, notes) with the photos and cover graphics.

SmithZoot.jpg“His prints became legend,” wrote John T. Hill in “W. Eugene Smith: His Techniques and Process,” “featuring impenetrable darks of blackness and ranging to clean linen whites … He favoured a lightened central subject surrounded by darker peripheral detail, producing an effect reminding some of Rembrandt’s use of light. They were breathtaking in their beauty and difficulty to reproduce.” Gilles Mora claimed that in his New York photos Smith was “relaxing his usual photojournalist precision in favour of vague soft-focus images, noticeably closer to the photographic language already being used by Robert Frank.”

In Stephenson’s interview, Frank says of Smith, “He was an astonishing man, his passion and his belief on whatever he would do. Since then, I haven’t met anyone that comes near that passion and belief in what he does and what it should do and the effect of his work. He believed it would change the world, and nobody today of the younger people think like that. I haven’t met them.”

SmithLadyStreet.jpgGranting the brilliance of specific images, other critics see in Smith a gap between his demand for authenticity of experience and the actual narrative and symbolic significance of the produced work. Lincoln Kirstein pinpointed this reservation about photojournalism in general in 1938: “It drugs the eye into believing it has witnessed a significant fact when it has only caught a flicker not clear enough to indicate a psychological image, however solid the material one.”

But as Mora notes, Smith “grasped the inherent paradox of photojournalism” – and this is why he insisted on editorial control, manipulating his images for psychological impact. I don’t know if Smith would have approved of Stephenson’s selection of materials for The Jazz Loft Project, but this wonderful book manages both to capture the intensity of Smith’s life and work and to delight any fan of jazz.

[Published November 24, 2009. 288 pages, 227 duotone and color photographs. $40.00]

Great Review

Wonderful summation of this book, and also about Gene Smith in general. I agree that the John Hill book is excellent. Great commentary there too as you show. Please do more articles on photography if you can.