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Mingus, Monk and Mailer

A maverick prone to obsessiveness, photojournalist W Eugene Smith was drawn to Pittsburgh's 'vistas of melancholy', but his greatest legacy was a monumental archive that chronicled the city's legendary jazz scene

Robert Frank described W Eugene Smith as "the last American photographer who believed that his work was the message and he was the messenger to tell you that it was true and that it will survive."

It's an interesting description, hinting at Smith's extraordinary self-belief, as well as his devotion to his subject matter – which bordered on the monomaniacal. The industrial city of Pittsburgh – which he first visited in 1955, having just terminated a lucrative contract with Life magazine (one too many rancorous rows over editorial control) – was both his greatest project and his ultimate undoing. Having joined the Magnum agency and been commissioned to provide one hundred photographs over a three-week period for a book on the city's bicentennial, Smith stayed for a year, shooting over 17,000 frames in the process.

What he called the city's "vistas of melancholy" mesmerised him. He returned there in 1956 and 1957, paring down his vast body of images to two thousand prints. Smith originally made his name as a war photographer – and ever since being seriously injured by fragments from a Japanese bomb in Okinawa, he suffered from severe migraines and extreme mood swings.

By the time he moved into a rundown loft at 821 Sixth Avenue later in 1957, his marriage had capsized, and his dependency on amphetamines and alcohol only added to his obsessiveness.

For the next eight years, the building became his home, his studio and, to an extent, his world. It also became the home of what came to be known as the Jazz Loft, a rehearsal and performance space that attracted the likes of Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, as well as their retinue of musicians, hangers-on, dealers, girlfriends, visiting writers and photographers, and various colourful characters from the city's demimonde. Diane Arbus passed through, as did Norman Mailer, Salvador Dali, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. It became a kind of microcosm of the ever-changing nocturnal city.

From 1957 to 1965, Smith took an estimated 40,000 photographs of the jazz scene in and around the Loft. He also spent endless nights photographing the surrounding streets from his windowsill on the fourth floor. Frustrated by the limits of the still image, he placed microphones throughout the building to record rehearsals, impromptu sessions and even conversations. The end result is monumental: 1740 reels of audiotape amounting to 4,000 hours of ambient sound that included performances from Sonny Rollins, Roland Kirk, Don Cherry and Alice Coltrane.

Smith's Jazz Loft Project might well have remained a semi-mythical footnote to his career as an esteemed documentary photographer, had it not been for the writer Sam Stephenson, who was researching a book about Smith's Pittsburgh photographs in 1997. On an extended visit to the Centre for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, where Smith's vast archive now resides, Stephenson came upon a row of cardboard boxes containing the 1,740 reels of audiotape from the Jazz Loft. Smith has since worked tirelessly on transcribing and digitising them, uncovering, among other extraordinary vignettes, the sound of the great pianist Sonny Terry overdosing near-fatally on heroin on a stairwell.

Stephenson, who edited the excellent Dream Street: W Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project 1955-1958, is currently working on a biography of the photographer many consider to be one of the greatest American documentary photojournalists. In the meantime, The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 is a riveting work of social archaeology, and extraordinary testament to artists whose music caught all the tumult and excitement of a fast-changing America.

It is also a glimpse inside the frenetic mind of a photographic pioneer; an obsessive, maverick genius, who died, poor and relatively unsung, in 1978, leaving behind some twenty-two tons of archive material, including his unfinished and ultimately unfinishable Pittsburgh Project.

The year before he died, Smith wrote: "I think I was at my very peak as a photographer in 1958 or so. My imagination and my seeing were both … red hot … Everywhere I looked, every time I thought, it seemed it left me with great exuberance and just a truer quality of seeing. But it was one of the most miserable times of my life, for I had little time to put it into real usage." At last, a half-century on, someone has found the time. Through Stephenson's diligence and focus, Smith's exuberant way of seeing has at long last been illuminated.

Now see this

The new issue of Foto8 magazine, which is dedicated to new reportage from around the globe, re-imagines Detroit, the murder and unemployment capital of America, as "one of the first post-industrial cities". It also features Marco Vernaschi's visceral mages from Guinea-Bissau, Africa's new hub for cocaine trafficking. On a lighter note, Jane Hilton's wonderful portraits of 21st-century cowboys are also on show in an accompanying exhibition, Dead Eagle Trail, at the Host Gallery from 21 April to 15 May.


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