Sunday, March 04, 2018

Through a Lens Darkly: Gene Smith's Sink- A Wide-Angle View by Sam Stephenson


Most people have no doubt seen Eugene Smith's incredible photographs. If only because, from the 1950s onwards, his work has made the rounds and then some. More than that, Smith, over the years, has become something of a legendary figure, perhaps even something of an urban legend, known as much for his private recordings, specifically jazz jam sessions held at his Sixth Avenue New York loft as for his photographs. Recordings  that many know about but not all that many have heard. However, by the time Smith had established residence in his  loft and on his way to becoming that eccentric New York figure, he had already secured his reputation as one of Life magazine's preeminent photographers, arguably the creator of the photo-essay, and Magnum member.

I was attracted by Sam Stephenson's  Gene Smith Sink- A Wide-Angle View (Farrar Strauss & Giroux) because I wanted to see what it had to say about those who frequented Smith's Sixth Avenue  loft during fourteen year tenure, from 1957 to 1971. It was during that time that Smith turned the place into something of an open house to musicians, junkies, pimps, prostitutes, fellow photographers,  assistants, and an array of interesting characters, from street people to the likes of Norman Mailer, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. Musicians like Thelonious Monk, Roland Kirk, Sonny Clark, Chick Corea, Lee Konitz, Freddie Redd, Paul Bley, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans and even Steve Reich used the loft to  practice, jam and hang-out. For some it was a place of refuge, while for others it functioned as little more than a shooting gallery. Perhaps something akin to the set for Jack Gelber's The Connection, but on a grand and more cluttered scale. Most famously, Monk, along with loft resident Hall Overton used the space to rehearse Monk's  famous Town Hall concert. As the various interviews in Stephenson's book aptly illustrate,  Smith,  his tape machines running day and night, was a compulsive, even possessed, collector of stuff, from photographs and photographic equipment to music of all kinds, as well as pre-recorded historical texts, poetry and plays, not to mention ambient sounds consisting of pretty much anything that caught Smith's fancy.

Sonny Clark
Stephenson, with two previous books on Smith under his belt-  Dream Street- W Eugene Smith and the Pittsburgh Project and The Jazz Loft Project- Photographs and Tapes from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965- here  extends his wide-angle view to those who knew  the  often amphetamine-fuelled Smith, or, if not, those who knew someone who knew Smith.  In fact, Stephenson claims to have spoken to some one thousand individuals over a twenty year period. Of course, a good many of those who hung out at the loft are no longer with us, such as the great jazz pianist Sonny Clark, who spent much of his heroin-filled time  in New York in and around Smith's seedy and cluttered Sixth Avenue residence. For me, the Clark chapter  is particularly welcome since  there's very little  biographical information out there on the pianist (which begs the question regarding why no one has yet written a biography of Clark?). Stephenson, also clearly a Clark fan,  paints a vivid portrait of the musician. Though many others people pop up in the book, for me the chapter on Clark as well as the interview with drummer Ronnie Free, best known for his work with Mose Allison, and the artist Mary Frank, alone make the book worth reading.

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Perhaps the most surprising discovery in the book was Smith's early friendship with film-maker Stan Brakhage, the two having met one another in  Geneva in 1958. A seemingly incongruous friendship given the dispositions and pursuits of both men. But, given their dedication to their respective art forms, one can see why they might be friends. After all, both had a particular attitude regarding  their art, and fought to exert control over their work. Which meant working against the prevailing system. In in Brakhage's case,  the perils and pressure facing independent film-makers, and, for the photo-journalist Smith, fighting  Life magazine's hegemony, even though he had given that publication some of its most memorable work. There is also, of course, a Pittsburgh connection: Brakhage went there to film his Pittsburgh Trilogy (Eyes, Deux Ex, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes), which could be interpreted as something of an homage to Smith, who a decade earlier had travelled to that city to shoot his famous Pittsburgh Project.


Hardly your usual biography, Gene Smith's Sink...surrounds and expands on its subject.   Though Stephenson sometimes lets his interviewees go slightly off-piste, he makes sure they eventually return to the subject at hand.  For me, there was a surprise in every chapter, with  the common denominator being that Smith, no matter how demanding, seems to have affected the life of just about everyone with whom he came in contact.

Smith died in 1978, not yet 60 years old, shortly after the contents of his loft had been transferred to the University of Arizona, where photographs, recorded material, assorted papers, etc., spilled forth from the school's  gymnasium. Not only is Gene Smith's Sink... a biographical testimony to one of the great photographers of the twentieth century, but, painstakingly put together, it stands as a cultural artifact for  anyone interested in photography, music, recorded sound, or New York during a time of great cultural activity.  
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