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He was one of the most important photographers of the 20th century


Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View

By Sam Stephenson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

218 pp, $26

Perhaps the reader will remember the tender image of two children walking toward the crest of a hillock, into the light, framed in an oculus of branches, the children seen in silhouette. It is the closing image in Edward Steichen’s globally distributed book and exhibition, “The Family of Man”(1955). The photograph, from 1946, is titled “The Walk to Paradise Garden.”

Or perhaps one recalls the poignant image of mother cradling her adult daughter in the baths of Minamata, as if they were a “Pieta.” “Tomako and Mother,” from 1972, was conceived in the aftermath of a huge industrial poisoning.

W. Eugene Smith is the photographer. He was beaten for revealing the poisoning and the consequent powerful and hidden humanity of this widely shared portrait.

Smith is among the most prolific of artists to create enduring icons during the 20th century. Popular Photography Magazine conducted a global poll to determine the most important photographers mid-century. Smith was in the top 10. And long after his death in 1978 at 61 years old, his work and his character continues to challenge – and haunt.

He made the piquant image of a soldier gravely holding an infant made at the front, entitled “Saipan” (1944). Smith was severely wounded by shell fire and spent two years recovering.

He then covered the Spanish Civil War and created a score of unforgettable pictures, among them “Spanish Wake,” 1951. And for Life Magazine he made the layout called “The Country Doctor” (1948), that is held as a masterwork of photo-journalistic layout.

Much of this was accomplished while Smith was strung out on drugs and alcohol, and being quirky to start with. He quit Life Magazine, and quit the prestigious photo collective called Magnum after he had quit the famed agency Black Star, and quit his marriage and left the family in Croton-on-Hudson and moved, solo, in 1957, into an already infamous five-story walk-up tenement where artists since 1954 had hung out with rats and cockroaches and hucksters and photographers and writers and played jazz and crashed and enjoyed sex with an open door to the street.

Smith joined the scene as a bona fide renter in 1957. He remained at 821 Sixth Ave. near 28th Street until 1965, and then moved to another loft on 23rd Street before yielding to arrears and moving all his stuff and himself to Tuscon.

Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, Chick Corea, and Alice Coltrane were among the regulars in The Jazz Loft.  Also named as frequent visitors included the new classical composer Steve Reich, and writers Norman Mailer and Anais Nin, and Doris Duke, the philanthropist, together with photographers Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson – and surrealist Salvador Dali for good measure. The book covers Smith’s eight years there.

“Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide Angle View” is the second book on The Jazz Loft scene written by Stephenson, and it is his fourth on Smith.

The title refers to Smith’s darkroom sink, which the author ended up acquiring. This is one of the several times Stephenson falls off the difficult cliff that marks what the author reveals about himself and his process - at the expense of the book’s primary subject.  Gene Smith’s darkroom sink is just not a matter for the title of a book, or for much discussion within its pages. When on aim, Stephenson employs a bright, revealing style within a clever organization - save those few sweeps of downright purple smush.

True, that after four books on Smith, the author has a good bit of information to share (and knows the source for a good bit more, such as an interpretation of Smith’s collection of 25,000 vinyl records, or his 8,000 books and their marginalia, all held by the Center of Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tuscon.)

Stephenson’s interpretation of eccentric hours of audio recordings Smith made surreptitiously in The Loft provides the “Wide Angle View” part of the book’s title, bits of information ripe for a book as jumpy as must have been the tempo of drop-ins at The Loft. Stephenson has created a fantastic, experimental form for a revealing biographical sketch, taken from voices rarely heard. Emerging is such as:

- Hall Overton, a great arranger for bands and smaller groups, who worked in virtual anonymity.  Among those with whom Overton created in The Loft was the legendary Thelonious Monk;

- Stan Brakhage, the visionary experimental film maker whose musings with Smith caught the aspirational tenor of the art in this time;

And drop-in runaway Tamas Janda, who helped around the Loft and wandered off as a laborer in Florida and a bartender in the Caribbean and now lives in a cheap rental in Orange City, FL. His insight into Smith is among the most piercing:

(Set ital) He was a tremdously sensitive man. But he was also dead honest; honest to the point of pure pain. One thing he was honest about is that he was a poor husband and father. He didn’t fake it. But he was sincerely compassionate and empathetic. It’s almost as if there was an eye inside of Gene that had to be filed. I don’t know how to explain this. Not many people are truly able to understand beauty and pain and ugliness. Most people don’t want to understand beauty and pain and ugliness….Gene sought that out. (end ital)

The book’s chapters are short and some of the mentions, such as Brakhage, are sprinkled. Twenty-eight chapters plus prologue, epilogue, acknowledgements, and author’s background use up 208 pages.

The tapes identify surprising subjects for interview, such as Ruth Fetske, an executive for an advertising agency who took a class Smith offered around 1960. When the students visited the Loft, she saw what a disaster and learned the same about Smith. She decided to help when she could. She told Stephenson:

"I think he was a man divided in half. I think 50% of his self felt that he was like a god, and the other that he was nothing. And I think he fought with himself mentally all the time, and he had to keep proving one side against the other…My memories of him are fond. He just couldn’t help himself.  He wasn’t a mean person. I just – everything was a challenge to him, everything, just getting up in the morning, I guess."

But Stephenson’s interviews sometime follows family trees for too long, revealing the likes of third cousins or friends of friends. But what a unique source from which cast such a net.  Smith had wired the Loft with recording stations to witness jam sessions and their side-talks - as well as a range of conversations caught on the by-and-by. The count: 1740 reels and 4500 hours of audio tape.

Unconventional, yes; digressive, just like The Loft. A great read to meet the diverse likes of Mose Allison, Chet Baker, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Will Faller (a photo colleague to Smith and father of the art dealer in East Aurora),  Dave Heath, Franz Kline, Marian McPartland, Charles Mingus, Carman Moore, Paul Newman, Pete Rose, Alexander Schneider, and Archie Shepp. (So many of whom also touch the great arts in Buffalo; the list is compiled by the Center for Documentary Studies).

Anthony Bannon is director emeritus of the Burchfield Penney Arts Center and George Eastman Museum. He also was an arts writer for The Buffalo News.


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