You don’t know W. Eugene Smith…but he is generally considered to be the greatest American photojournalist. From 1957-1965, he opened his New York city loft to the jazz musicians of the era and shot stills pictures, 40,000 of them!
Plus, he recorded 4000 hours of audio (not all of it is music). It was just released as a documentary movie called The Jazz Loft According To W. Eugene Smith.
Back when I was in photojournalism school in the late 1980s, my instructor at San Jose State University, Jim McNay, had me read a book about Smith. McNay’s contention was that many of our greatest artists are essentially crazy. Smith could certainly be seen in that light.
If you’re expecting a movie strictly about jazz, this isn’t it. The film, by Sara Fishko, is really a microcosm of life in New York City as documented by Smith from within and without the loft. The sights, the sounds, even the smells that went on there. But Smith did more than record the musicians who walked in. He tape recorded countless hours of radio and TV broadcasts. He recorded his telephone conversations. He recorded anything and everything he could, on tape and on camera film for several years. There may not be another documentary project of its kind, anywhere in the world.
For example, he recorded then President John F. Kennedy speaking about the Cuban missile crisis. Smith recorded the world. Was there ever a more complete photojournalist than Smith? In my opinion, no.
Hearing Smith’s voice is a revelation. Reading a biography can tell you a lot, but to hear Smith talk is better. Hearing jazz pianist Thelonious Monk speak is better. Those were amazing moments for me, to hear these people, long dead, speak. It’s as if I was one of the microphones.
There are a number of interviews that bring to Smith to life. To say he was complicated would be an understatement.
Smith could be quiet or intense, he could be likable and hated. You put up with him because of his extraordinary abilities and loved him because of the way he lived, probably because you couldn’t live it yourself.
He was physically debilitated by severe wounds, suffered during WWII (his face and left hand were nearly blown off while he tried to shoot a photo). He was confrontational (with his editors). If LIFE magazine didn’t run his pictures the way he wanted, or didn’t run enough of them, he was not happy. He quit on them at some point, maybe more than once. He claimed he might commit suicide if LIFE wasn’t more accommodating. He claimed he would commit suicide while speaking over the phone to his son. His son got tired of it. Smith used theatrics to get what he wanted from people (he loved the theater and performers in general), then apologize profusely shortly after. He adored his first wife but often wrote letters to her, addressing her as”Dearest pest.”
But if you look at the greatest stories ever done in LIFE, Smith’s are among them. He became world famous for them. That’s how important LIFE magazine was back then. Spanish Village, The Country Doctor and Death-Flow from a Pipe (Minamata, Japan) are worth seeking out. Smith was the consummate photo-essayist. Meaning, he didn’t show up for a few hours, shoot a few frames and leave. He would literally live with these people, sometimes for years, to make unobtrusive, real pictures of their lives. Imagine his pictures of the greatest jazz musicians, coming to his place to jam late at night!
Many of the musicians Smith recorded are complete unknowns. Pictures and sounds of the obscure, who happened to drop in one night to play or do drugs, usually both. I had never heard of drummer Ron Free. Or pianist and composer Hall Overton, who would collaborate with pianist Thelonious Monk. Without Smith, we wouldn’t know as much about either man, both of whom are featured in the film. You haven’t heard of Monk? Even in his own time, he wasn’t readily accepted by the jazz community, much less the general public. His music seemed odd, off key, off tempo. He seemed to hit the wrong notes. It’s probably why Smith loved him so much.
Smith recorded the sound of New York jazz at its height. He did so by wiring the top three floors of his building and the stairwell with a number of microphones. Smith was drilling a hole for another mic, from the floor beneath the musicians feet as they were playing!
The music ends up being mostly a backdrop in the movie. It’s not the dominant part of the film. So that was a little disappointing for me. But I understand it, the film is really about Gene Smith’s life. It isn’t a movie strictly about jazz. But a segment about Thelonious Monk’s rehearsals for the 1959 concert at Town Hall was revealing of both the depth of Smith’s work, and the life in the loft. If you’re into photography, music, or New York, you will find the film engrossing. Why? Because as John G.Morris said of Smith, “It was a life of epic dimension.” W. Eugene Smith was not boring.
But do I wish there were several uninterrupted songs by, say, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Johnny Griffin, Jackie McLean, McCoy Tyner, Wingy Manone, Charles Mingus, JR Monterose, Pee Wee Russell, Horace Silver, Sonny Clark, Curtis Fuller or Bill Evans? Yea, sure I do, and that’s the very, very short list of the hundreds of musicians who Smith recorded.
Most of what photojournalists produce could be called production art. You shoot pictures of the parade, or the fire, or the politician. I did plenty of that. Every once in a blue moon, you make a photo that might be art, without the production. If it isn’t too presumptuous of me, Smith’s goal was to produce much more art. He lived and sacrificed much of his life to do so.
“He was an astonishing man, ” said friend and fellow photojournalist Robert Frank. “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.”*
In the time he made the photos and sound recordings that the movie is based on, he was broke. He was married and had several children, but basically abandoned them. He was hooked on uppers and downers. His most recent multi year project, Pittsburgh, was in his own estimation, an utter failure. The New York apartment that was his loft was a dim, dilapidated building full of rats and cockroaches. If there was ever an American photographer who was a starving artist, it was Smith.
‘I have no memories of him eating or sleeping,” recalled jazz drummer Ron Free, who lived at the loft. “He was like a mad scientist.”*
And the musicians absolutely loved him. He wasn’t the photographer. He was one of them.
When you look at the breadth of Smith’s work over his life, I believe he achieved exactly what he set out to, although it is highly doubtful he felt that way. I don’t think he got much personal satisfaction out of it. His belief in his life’s mission to record made his life all the more difficult. Only decades after his death in 1978, will a handful of the general public discern the artist, the person he was.
And finally, the few of us who pay attention to jazz will have a chance to see, hear and breathe it all. Because of that, I think Gene Smith will breathe a little easier, too. I found the movie on Apple’s Itunes, under the Independent Film category. You have to pay to rent or buy. You can also find it at Amazon, Vudu or Google Play.
What about the 4000 hours of audio? Is it available? A smidgen is, on the Jazz Loft website. Under the “Savoy” tab, Track 1 is a minor blues with Zoot Sims and Clarence Sharpe, saxophone; Dick Scott, drums; Vinnie Burke, bass from March 1964. The audio quality is surprisingly good, even streamed over the internet. Very nice clarity and balance. Tracks 3 and 6 are also tunes. The remaining seven are speaking and recordings made from radio/TV stations. You can hear Sonny Rollins, recorded from a TV broadcast, under the “Chaos Manor” tab, track 8. Considering it is recorded from a TV speaker in Smith’s loft, it’s pretty decent.
Track 10 under the “Walter Trego” tab is a recording of a police officer who drops by the loft. You can hear what perhaps sounds like the man walking in and then introducing himself. It’s casual conversation that is sometimes hard to make out, due to street sounds or the cat meowing. Smith talks briefly about a famous LIFE story he did on a nurse midwife.
Also, some tapes are available to listen to thru a website at station WNYC. But you don’t get to hear complete tunes. There are voice overs over most of the music, explaining things. Or drive to Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, where 5089 compact discs in 85 boxes (!) are available if you are willing to go there and request the materials. Tuscon’s Center for Creative Photography houses the same CDs, but I was told over the phone with archivist Leslie Squyres that copyright restrictions make the CDs unavailable to the general public. Meaning, you can go there and maybe listen to them, but you cannot check them out or make copies.
Man, that is disappointing. I was hoping to hear much more of the music somehow. I would buy some CDs or downloads. Maybe someday. Maybe Mosaic Records will get a hold of it and do it right. Just being hopeful.
For me, there were and are two photo gods. One is Ansel Adams, the other is Smith. Adams wasn’t nuts, but Smith? Well, you be the judge. Let the truth determine your prejudice. And see the movie!
The video below is from the 2009 book, The Jazz Loft Project.
*From the book, The Jazz Loft Project (see video above), by Sam Stephenson, 2009. This book is out of print and covers a great deal of Smith’s life during the time he lived in the loft. The movie is an outgrowth of the book. It costs a mint on Ebay, I found one at the library.
In 1977, Stephenson took on what would become a decades long project to bring Smith’s loft work to the public light. Trucks hauled 22 tons of Smith’s materials to the Center for Creative Photography. The book, and now the movie, is the result. Whew!
+These quotes come from Let Truth Be The Prejudice by Ben Maddow. An excellent book about Smith, filled with his photographs.
Was Smith justified in his many beefs with LIFE magazine? After his time in the loft was over, his next project (and his last) took place in Minamata, Japan. For three years he documented the devastating effects of mercury poisoning in the waters surrounding the tiny fishing village.
LIFE saw fit to not say a single thing on the cover of the June 2, 1972 issue that debuted the story. The opening page did include a nicely written Editor’s Note by Managing Editor Ralph Graves about the difficulties Smith encountered on the shoot. Starting with page 74, LIFE ran 11 of his photos across eight pages. The last two pages of the story is a double truck (double page) of what could be Smith’s greatest image.
Did Smith, the artist, succeed in Minamata? Villagers filed a lawsuit in 1969 against Chisso Corporation for polluting the local waters that led to the mercury poisoning of the inhabitants. The trial took four years but Chisso was found criminally negligent and had to pay compensation. In 1979, the former president and a supervisor were sentenced to two years in prison. Much back and forth took place and in 2010, the Japanese government agreed to pay for more undocumented Minamata disease victims.
Looking back, the 1972 LIFE magazine article didn’t lead to a quick resolution of the problem in Minamata, but like any good journalistic effort, it informed its readership of the problem through Smith’s miraculous photography. He did change the world. Deep down, it’s what every journalist wants to do.
Both LIFE and Smith did their jobs, perhaps to the satisfaction of neither. And that sounds a lot like W. Eugene Smith.
Below is a vid shot from the pages of LIFE magazine…