Every obsessive deserves his own obsessive Boswell, and W. Eugene Smith has his in Sam Stephenson.
Smith was mid-century America’s greatest photojournalist. His work in Life magazine, during and after World War II, made him rich and famous. Then he went to Pittsburgh on a three-week assignment to produce 100 prints for a book celebrating the city. The three weeks turned into a year, and in the end Smith wound up snapping 22,000 pictures, envisioning a work as epic as Beethoven’s late string quartets.
Smith never finished the book, and from then on, nobody wanted to hire him, fearing he’d spin out on another quixotic odyssey. And so he went a little crazy.
In 1957, Smith, 38, abandoned his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, and moved to a fourth-floor loft at 821 Sixth Avenue, near West 28th Street, in the heart of what was then Manhattan’s commercial flower market. Over the next eight years, pepped up on amphetamines, he shot over 1,000 rolls of film, many of them from his window, capturing a world in one block. In a letter to his friend Ansel Adams, he described Sixth Avenue as “an ever-changing pandemonium of delicate details and habitual rhythms.”
A few of those lyrical images are on these pages; more can be found in Stephenson’s recently published The Jazz Loft Project—which is equally devoted to Smith’s other passion, jazz. As it happened, his next-door neighbor was composer-arranger Hall Overton, and Smith was letting him use his loft as a rehearsal space for some of the era’s great jazzmen. Not only did Smith photograph the musicians, he wired the whole building for sound, hooked up several tape recorders, and let the spools spin till they ran out, recording everything from jam sessions to conversations in the hallway.
Smith died, broke, in 1978. A few months earlier, two eighteen-ton trucks had hauled away all his film, prints, and tapes—22 tons of stuff—to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
Cut to April 1997. Sam Stephenson, a 30-year-old freelance writer, was camped out at the center’s archive, researching a book about Smith’s Pittsburgh project. He noticed a row of cardboard boxes stacked against the wall and asked about them. An archivist told him they were tapes Smith had recorded—1,740 reels. He looked at the names on the tape labels: Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Zoot Sims. Had he discovered a jazz treasure trove? “I couldn’t stop thinking about them,” Stephenson says. But he also couldn’t listen to them—nobody could—until they’d been preserved. And that would require more money than he had.
In 1999, Stephenson wrote an article for DoubleTake magazine about the New York loft photos and tapes. Reva and David Logan, who run a foundation, read the piece and gave him $65,000 to start preservation. Gradually raising another $1.2 million in grants, Stephenson spent the next decade immersed in this forgotten world. “I’m fascinated with things that are underneath the surface,” he says. “Here was this window on the world that was really obscure yet smack in the center of Manhattan. It was like an August Wilson play, with characters pouring through this room.”
He traveled to nineteen states, interviewing 350 people who had visited the loft from 1957 to 1965, and spent countless hours transcribing what he could decipher from the tapes, which are now digitized onto 5,089 CDs. One transcript, of pianist Sonny Clark nearly dying of a heroin overdose on the loft’s grubby stairwell, is as gripping as any fictional drama.
Stephenson has signed a contract with Farrar, Straus and Giroux to write a Smith biography. Meanwhile, he still has 1,500 CDs, nearly a third of the cache, to transcribe. “When I first went to Arizona, I never imagined I’d still be at this thirteen years later,” he says. “I’m getting seriously burned out.” Obsessions will do that to you.