Following the River
Most times when I give a public talk about my fifteen and a half years of research on the life and work W. Eugene Smith, or when I do media interviews, like I did in May for the JLP opening at MOPA, I am asked how I got into it. It’s a good question. Another good one is, how did Smith get into his line of work?
In the June 4-11 issue of the New Yorker magazine, an email from fantasy and science fiction writer China Mieville to a young fan was excerpted. Mieville responded to a question of getting started in his field:
How did you get into this stuff?
You're going to be asked this question a lot. Sometimes with a sneer, sometimes with friendly curiosity, generally with bewilderment. It's impossible to answer, of course; you didn't really get into anything. You're inextricable from your likes, and since the birth of your consciousness what you've wanted are monsters, witches, aliens, spaceships. "How did you get into this?" is to say, "How come you are you?"
If I remember correctly, Freud said the psychological being is formed by age five. In other words, your likes are established to one degree or another. In my next book, Gene Smith’s Sink, a biography for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is there any way for me to correctly identify the likes that drove Smith to his feverish extremes of obsession? Off the top of my head, Smith liked dramatic contrasts in light and dark tones; he liked overcoming obstacles and sometimes he’d invent them if they weren’t there; he liked individuals that he saw trapped in the impersonal plights of political, economic, and cultural collectives. But where did those drives come from? I’m not sure I can identify the source of my own so-called drives and ambitions. So how can I possibly get it right with Smith, who was born in 1918 (he died in 1978)?
Three times I’ve visited Smith’s birthplace and hometown, Wichita, Kansas. Last November, with photographer Kate Joyce, I was able to get inside his first home on the Arkansas River bank where he lived through elementary school. I was struck that the home faced due east, same as his loft window at 821 Sixth Avenue, New York City, from which he made 20,000 photographs (several dozen of which are on view at MOPA now). In Wichita young Gene could have seen the river when he was old enough to pull himself up and peer over the window seal. Several decades later he spent countless hours peering at Sixth Avenue traffic flowing from right to left below his fourth floor window.
I also grew up on a riverbank, the Pamlico River in Washington, North Carolina, a town of 10,000 people on the rural coast. When you grow up that close to water, you demand that water be part of your life from then on. At least, that’s how it works for people I know that grew up on the water. Maybe Smith was different. But I think not. I think it’s one reason why he virtually lived in the darkroom, even though he said many times the darkroom left him depleted and irritated. I believe he was comforted by the constant trickle of water in his darkroom sink. On so many of his mysterious loft tape recordings, you can hear that trickle in the background.
When Smith was a high school senior, his father committed suicide after losing his grain business in a Dust Bowl drought. By that time the family had moved to another home (which also had a due east view of the river). My speculation that the windows of the first home - his first apertures - left a permanent mark on his artistic vision is just that, speculation. There’s no way to prove it.
I’ve been researching Smith’s life and work for more than one-third of my life. It started in early January 1997, when a simple remark by a camera store clerk in Raleigh, North Carolina propelled me to the public library to look into Smith. Today I can’t remember whether or not I knew anything about Smith before that day. My first project was to pick up the pieces of Smith’s unfinished, quixotic opus on the city of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. A book (Dream Street: WW Norton) and exhibition (Carnegie Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography) appeared in 2001-02. Sometime in 1998, while working on the Pittsburgh project, I discovered 1740 reels of tape recordings that Smith made in a New York loft building. I traveled to twenty-three states, Japan, and made more than one hundred and fifty trips to New York City alone, interviewing more than five hundred people. Now, here I am in July 2012, writing this blog entry on the occasion of The Jazz Loft Project show at MOPA. And my work on Smith is still unfolding. I’m writing Gene Smith’s Sink; helping develop a playbased on that book; and helping with a documentary film based on The Jazz Loft Project.
Smith-related projects are not the only thing I do. I recently wrote pieces about contemporary musicians Branford Marsalis and Joe Henry for Paris Review Daily, and another piece about two poets, Betty Adcock and Claudia Emerson. I also submitted a new piece about the manager of the Durham Bulls, Charlie Montoyo, and a larger project on the Bulls is on the horizon, too. But Smith is still generating interesting new avenues for me, and I keep meeting fascinating people along the way, so I don’t see any reason to make it stop.
Photgraphy by Kate Joyce.