With more than 500 interviews and over twenty years of research, Sam Stephenson presents his newest masterpiece Gene Smith’s Sink—an extraordinary look into the life of W. Eugene Smith, a revolutionary photojournalist who both captured some of history’s most powerful images and chronicled humanity’s most intimate moments. In an e-mail exchange with his friend Allan Gurganus, Stephenson opens up about the triumphs and frustrations of his ambitious project—the strange surprises and intoxicating lure of Smith’s dazzlingly disordered life; the doubts and uncertainties that haunt the author’s writing and research; his interactions with Thelonious Monk and other jazz legends.
Stephenson will appear at NYPL’s Art Talk on September 19, 2017, in conversation with award-winning photographer Eugene Richards and Senior Art Librarian Arezoo Moseni about the roles of art and journalism with respect to (and as necessitated by) time.
Allan Gurganus: Before reading your work on W. Eugene Smith, I only knew him through his famous photo essays for LIFE magazine and his “Family of Man” contributions. Your book shows how his natural experimentalism stretched far beyond photography. He was an early McLuhan prophet—intuiting how media and community interact and crossbreed. His compulsive “Rear Window” audio recording ventures made him godfather to Warhol’s “Factory” and other messy stabs at idealistic utopias. Though physically he was as anonymous-looking as his name sounds, he inspired passions and loyalties in so many kinds of people. When in your research did Gene Smith start surprising you with depth charges?
Sam Stephenson: Early. Very early, I’d say, when I began my work in 1997. My first two projects on Smith focused on the two largest and most misunderstood bodies of work of his career—his unfinished photo-study of the city of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s and his mind-boggling audio-visual study of a dilapidated “jazz loft” on Sixth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan’s wholesale flower district in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. From the start I was thrust into questions of why these bodies of work were so massive and yet misunderstood. If you judge a person by what they do when nobody’s looking, Smith’s Pittsburgh and “jazz loft” materials come to the fore rather than his iconic LIFE work like “Country Doctor” or “Nurse Midwife” or “Spanish Village” or his combat work in WWII. I was starting with profound works strange and unfamiliar.
AG: You devoted many years, perhaps unexpectedly, to the research and detective work that make Gene Smith’s Sink so riveting. What were the moments of discouragement, and how did they fuel your understanding of Gene Smith’s nomadic, restless ways?
What he achieved with those tapes amounts to post-war urban fieldwork of a unique kind. The volume of tapes, which we now know constitutes more than four thousand hours of recorded sound, made the project nearly impossible for reasons of time and financial costs.
SS: The most discouragement had to do with preserving, indexing, and cataloging his bizarre, invaluable collection of audio recordings from his firetrap of a Sixth Avenue loft. What he achieved with those tapes amounts to post-war urban fieldwork of a unique kind. The volume of tapes, which we now know constitutes more than four thousand hours of recorded sound, made the project nearly impossible for reasons of time and financial costs. Also, the reputation of the tapes was terrible, which made it hard to raise the money. It took about a dozen years to do it. I had a colleague, Dan Partridge, whose full-time job for a decade was to listen to Smith’s tapes and catalog them for content, whether it be immortal musicians like Thelonious Monk or Steve Reich, just street noise on Sixth Avenue, sounds in the dank stairwell for hours on end, or him puttering around his darkroom with his transistor radio in the background.
What I learned from that tedious process is that Smith could not have created that volume of material with any particular goal or outcome in mind. What outcome would that have been? There was no medium in 1960 that could handle what he achieved. Today you can do something digitally, but even that is an extreme challenge for many reasons.
The tapes are so odd that Smith’s ego can be nearly eliminated from a list of motivations for making them. Or, at least, ego moves down the list of possibilities, whereas you could argue that his LIFE magazine photography was driven by ego because he knew he’d bask in the adulation of a huge audience. The tapes indicate that he was driven by some qualities of obsession and compulsion that are indeterminate.
AG: Smith’s tremendous respect for jazz artists and composers and playwrights seems to have inspired his own improvisations and overall creative mindset, sometimes leading him to dead ends and chaos. He seems to have been both an archivist and an anarchist. Did you regularly tire of him and wish he did less speed and kept better notes?
SS: When I would tire of Smith I would move away from him as the focus of my work. For me, the genius of his tapes is that you could spend years not researching him at all but, rather, following leads he left behind on the tapes. I’d go interview another two dozen people whose names I never would have known if it weren’t for his tapes, or I’d try to figure out who the unnamed beat cop was who dropped by the loft from time to time and can be heard on the tapes. The fact that the cops were sometimes friendly is a critical point. I contacted the New York City Fraternal Order of the Police . . . anybody remember who the flower district beat cop was in the early 1960s? This kind of work intoxicated me. I interviewed more than 500 people over the twenty years. That’s what drove me more than anything else.
I interviewed more than 500 people over the twenty years. That’s what drove me more than anything else.
AG: I know you cut the manuscript by more than half to reach the published version. How did you envision that radical streamlining? I know that much of that writing was polished. Few writers would have sacrificed all those words! But that gave the final work its mystery, compact energy, and a consistency of tone that I find nearly miraculous. Was there a principle of selection in the final winnowing?
SS: The book was six years late because I couldn’t figure out what to do with all of the material I was accumulating. I had a traditional biography in me or in my files. That was what I originally proposed to FSG years ago and what FSG signed up for. I actually achieved a traditional biography in writing to some degree, but I wasn’t satisfied with it or charmed by it: And then Smith did this, and then Smith did that . . . Who cares? I really didn’t care about connecting dots like that. Even though my writing was polished it lacked the mystery and energy you mention. I also created another longer manuscript that was even more digressive and experimental than the published one.
The way I ended up with the final manuscript, combining traditional biography with digressive reflections of Smith, is that I went through all of my writing and I marked the passages and sections that I loved, that I truly loved. Tone and rhythm were what I was looking for. Then I discarded everything else, regardless of narrative or chronological utility. It was then that I started to love the book. It was then that I could visualize the possibilities. At some point writing becomes a visual process for me. I need to be able to see it physically. I made paper blocks of each section of writing, and I taped those blocks to a wall, which I think you saw in my loft in Durham, and I moved them around like pieces of a puzzle. It was a matter of sequencing and finessing the writing that was left after I got rid of what I didn’t love. This process took two years. I imagine that many artists in many other genres—perhaps photographers in particular—would recognize a process of getting rid of most of what you do, but not many biographers or historians do that, I assume. Somewhere along the way I realized that the idea that I was a biographer stymied me.
I must acknowledge my editor, Ileene Smith, here. She enabled me to do something severely different than what I had proposed. She recently told me, “I’m a card carrying member of Doorstops Anonymous.”
AG: Were you influenced by any other works of investigative biography? So many of the early reviews of Gene Smith’s Sink have rightly praised the originality of your work’s form—how it combines essay, the detective novel, autobiography, and a scrupulous, unsentimental account of Smith’s brilliant, if disordered, life.
SS: Well, I remember at the launch party for my last book, The Jazz Loft Project (Knopf, 2009), you handed me an old beat up copy of The Quest for Corvo, which had been out of print for decades. You had wrapped it in nice wrapping paper, and I opened it, and it was this worn, 1969 Penguin mass-market paperback copy of this book I’d never heard of. Knowing you and the depth of your suggestions, I devoured it in a few days. Until the end of my work on Gene Smith’s Sink I used it as a model of sorts.
Also, Janet Malcolm is one of my heroes. She’s spent forty years destabilizing the enterprise of biography, and then she goes about doing it anyway. Her books are mostly slim volumes despite the extraordinary rigor of her thinking and research. Each line of her writing and each quotation are vital and unique pieces of craft. It’s no surprise to me that when she’s not writing she’s a collage artist.
The other thing I’d say is that I’ve read dozens and dozens of wonderful biographies that are highly conventional in terms of accumulating data and rendering it in chronological order. I admire so many of them. One that comes to mind is the Emerson biography by your friend and mine, Bob Richardson. What a remarkable piece of work. It’s just not what I am able to do. It’s not my strength. I don’t have the discipline or stamina of a certain type required. I can accumulate the data—I find the search an addiction—but that’s when I stop being a biographer. When I have to formulate the material into an outcome I suppose I’m something other than a biographer. As a result I know that Gene Smith’s Sink will frustrate some readers.
AG: I love how chameleonic your Gene Smith is. You honor all his variations and changes. In some sections of the book, I’d cast Claude Rains to play him, in others, Johnny Depp. Did you make a determination to keep his character fluid? I like how you’ve left him “un-regularized.”
Memory is dubious, though also more powerful than anything else. If you can’t get yourself right, then how can you get someone else right, especially someone as complex as Smith?
SS: I’ve been through a lot of therapy in my life. I know firsthand how difficult it is to get things right, even things about myself. Memory is dubious, though also more powerful than anything else. If you can’t get yourself right, then how can you get someone else right, especially someone as complex as Smith? So, if you begin thinking on this level after you’ve acquired untold amounts of information over two decades, what do you do with the book? For me, the longer the book became, the more strenuous the effort was to pin things down, which seemed false. When I started making cuts and allowing digressions I felt the distillation getting closer to Smith, not further away.
AG: In a camera shop in Raleigh in 1997, your question about photographing Pittsburgh opened you up to the subject of Smith by accident. His immense archive of images and audio was waiting for you in Arizona. Decades later, you seem near the end of a rich vein that produced three essential books. Do you ever wonder what alternate route or ancillary paths you might have pursued?
SS: I was thirty years old when I began this work, and now I’m fifty. I don’t have any regrets. Sometimes I wonder if today I’d be a more prolific and well-known writer with more opportunities if I’d done several more focused projects with shorter range rather than one long one. In terms of ancillary paths, yes, I’d sign up right now, if I could get funding, to spend a number of years working on a project on Thelonious Monk or Tennessee Williams or Cy Twombly or basketball coach Dean Smith or the blue crab industry in eastern North Carolina, or writers like Bernard Malamud or Janet Malcolm or John Berger or Willa Cather or August Wilson or Evan Connell or Dos Passos or William Gass or Stephen Crane or John A. Williams, or musicians like Radiohead or Zoot Sims or Lee Konitz or Eric Revis or Matthew Shipp or Lucinda Williams or Esa-Pekka Salonen or John Luther Adams—heroes of mine, people whose work influenced me. I’d sign up for projects like that. There’s also a modern field of alternative mental health treatment that I believe in, with figures like Peter A. Levine, Marsha Linehan, Francine Shapiro, and others. The thing is, though, I’ve learned enough about myself to know that if I begin one of these projects the frame will start changing pretty soon, and I’ll end up with 500 interviews again. I believe in that process. The hard part is getting this method funded. A saxophonist or a sculptor or a civil engineer or Gene Smith or Allan Gurganus faces the same problem. I was lucky to get most of my work on Smith funded over the years, and for that I must acknowledge the Reva and David Logan Foundation of Chicago. Without the Logan family, who approached me out of nowhere in 1999, I wouldn’t have been able to follow all the sideways leads that I followed. At some point the need to pay bills reduces your options. You’re lucky if that’s not true. I hope I can continue to be lucky.
AG: Finally, your interviews all seem to yield far more than most do. Your eyes for character are always at play. And you do your homework. But you never seem in a hurry, and you often seem to be eating or drinking with the interviewee. Can you reveal the secret of how to get a reluctant subject to talk?
SS: My methods are not the most efficient. I think the key is to not go after targets but to let the material arise organically. In other words, it’s not journalism, which is a field I admire and envy and wish I could do. My process takes a very long time. Once you send signals to your subjects that this is the way you are operating then it’s possible to gain their trust and to actually have a really good and meaningful time doing the work in itself, regardless of the outcome. It’s fairly simple, but it’s not easy. It’s about listening carefully, paying attention, and enjoying the process of not knowing. You have to be patient and let the material take you where it wants to take you.
Sam Stephenson is a writer and documentarian. He is the author of Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project and The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957–1965. His writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Paris Review, Tin House, and the Oxford American. A lifelong resident of North Carolina, he lives in Durham with his wife and their son.
Alan Gurganus’s, books include White People and Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All. Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Gurganus is a Guggenheim Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Adaptations of his fiction have earned four Emmys. A resident of his native North Carolina, he lives in a village of six thousand souls.