Sam Stephenson spent seven years cataloging and archiving the photography and tape recordings of W. Eugene Smith, resulting in a book and now a show on view at the Nasher Museum through July 10, The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in New York City, 1957-1965. Luminaries such as Thelonious Monk, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins, and Zoot Sims are caught in moody black-and-white, in the dim rooms of a five-floor loft in Manhattan’s flower warehouse district, playing music or shooting the shit until sunrise.
Smith left his family in 1957 to live in the building at 821 Sixth Avenue. He created a darkroom in his fourth-floor apartment, wired much of the building for sound, and spent some eight years documenting life within and around this hangout, residence, and rehearsal studio for musicians and artists, shooting about 40,000 pictures and recording over 4,000 hours of audio. The Nasher has partnered with Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and with the Center for Creative Photography to organize this show, which includes vast audio resources online.
It’s really two shows commingled. By night, Smith shot the heroes and their hangers-on, saturated in an aura of New York jazz insomnia. Heads tilt in concentration, hands work keyboards and saxophone necks, and cigarettes emit curls of thick smoke. By day, Smith leaned out of windows to shoot the neighborhood, accumulating a circumstantial cross-section of the city. Flower trucks unload their wares, women turn heads on the sidewalks, and families scurry to the curb in their Sunday best. Some of the best moments of the exhibition come from visual connections between the jazz and street pictures. The curve of the neck of Sims’ sax is placed above a pair of nice gams, bent at the knee, protruding from an open cab door. Umbrellas and cymbals share an implied wobble.
Some sets of photos capture a palpable sense of sequential time and space. A montage of eight images shows Monk and Hall Overton at work on arrangements for their legendary big band concerts at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. They stand at the piano holding hand-marked scores, a reel-to-reel recorder sitting on the piano bench. In another trio of images, Monk’s band is visible in the background as he leans back, chin pointed at the ceiling, eyes closed in concentration, a cigarette poking out of his mouth. The two subsequent images zoom in on Monk’s head, showing the grease pencil crop marks that Smith took to the enlarger to frame the last image.
The clarity of Smith’s compositional eye is evident in close-cropped images of musicians that exclude their faces and zero in on their interaction with the instrument. Jim Hall’s hands make pictograms upon a dark fretboard. Kirk’s blurry face, made insectoid by his omnipresent sunglasses, recedes above root-like hands on three simultaneously played saxophones. But any temptation to label Smith a starry-eyed jazz lover or chipper cub-reporter should be checked at the door. One aspect of loft life missing from these pictures is drug consumption. Smith used amphetamines throughout his life, leading to his death from a stroke in 1978. The wrung-out look of many of the musicians wasn’t just from playing all night. Charlie Parker had been buried not two years prior. This was the waning of the heroin era of New York jazz, and Smith paid a price for these images.
Smith started out at Newsweek before two WWII-era stints at Life magazine, shooting some of the more startling front-line pictures in the Japanese theater and helping to establish the photo-essay genre. But his talent would always be tempered by his workaholism. The click of his shutter was a potent controlled substance. His habits fit the field well, but didn’t carry over to everyday American postwar life. A three-week assignment to document daily life in Pittsburgh could become an obsessive three-year archive of over 10,000 photographs. Smith didn’t come home, mow the lawn, and eat his wife’s pot roast.
His presence in this show is felt in the quantity of images rather than in the images themselves. It’s hard to get a sense of him as anything other than a keen-eyed, ghostlike eaves-looker from the neighborhood pictures. He’s not down at street level. People were unaware that they were his subjects. Smith perched in a window with cameras of many formats with many lenses strewn before him, looking for opportunity. He’s optically predatory at times, though never cruel.
Although the show takes its name from the nocturnal jazz pictures, I found myself lingering more over the portraits of neighborhood residents. Perhaps it was their anonymity or their unposed sincerity. Just looking back in time was delightful, and a relief from the scrubbed-clean retro sheen of period pieces like Mad Men.
A group of images of the city abstracted in snowfall are magical. Tire tracks linger in the curbside slush. People are reduced to black umbrellas from Smith’s high perspective, set against an impressionistic flurry of falling flakes and shoe scuffs in the sidewalk snow. The whoosh and hush of these pictures came to my ears, while the pictures of Monk and Kirk remained strangely silent. But Smith himself? He was hardly anywhere to be found.