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.
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.