W. Eugene Smith and the Jazz Loft

The Smith installation at Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego.

I think my favorite photograph may be W. Eugene Smith’s White Rose Sign, New York, 1957. It is a profoundly romantic image of the city, yet like the city itself, it is suffused with melancholy. One might say that melancholy is an essential component of romantic aesthetics, but instead of a Byronic mountaintop or a Caspar David Friedrich cathedral, we have Sixth Avenue in New York City in the fifties, capital of the postwar art world, home of Wall Street—and of an isolated figure crossing a busy street at dusk on a rainy evening, photographed by a particularly lonely soul from his loft window.

I recently visited The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in NYC, 1957-1965, an exhibition of photographs Smith made while living in a Flower District building in Lower Manhattan. The Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego provided a most appropriate venue for the show, which continues on tour and will be at the home of Smith’s photographic archive, the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson in 2013. White Rose was there, of course, as were so many other rich images from within the loft and from above the street.

I love Smith’s jazz photographs, but I’ve been asked why I did not write more about them in Blue Notes in Black and White. In part, the book was getting to its proper length and launching into a full discussion of Smith’s jazz work is a substantial task. I knew how massive it was because Sam Stephenson, through his exemplary work at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, spent years working through Smith’s loft work, producing a lovely volume (with White Rose on the cover) and curating the show that continues to tour the country. Indeed, an important article Stephenson published in the now-lamented DoubleTake magazine in the 1990s—one subscription I never regretted—featuring several jazz loft photos turned me on to Smith in the first place. Book and exhibition are treasures, and anyone who wants a deeper immersion into Smith’s loft world can also get started with a terrific web site, a radio series, and more thanks largely to Sam Stephenson’s efforts.

I did use Smith to launch the ending of Blue Notes. Here is some of what I had to say about Smith and a photograph used for Thelonious Monk’s 1964 Monk. album on Columbia:

“Smith (1918-1978) had established the photo-essay as an expressive art form at Life magazine in the years before his resignation in October 1954. He made his name photographing the front lines of combat during the Pacific campaign, paying for his audacity with a serious wound in the face inflicted by a shell fragment. Smith’s “The Walk to Paradise Garden,” a photograph of his children walking away from the camera and into sunlight, became not only a sign of his recovery but a world renowned image, chosen by Edward Steichen as the penultimate piece in The Family of Man’s human mosaic. Smith’s “Country Doctor” essay for Life in 1948 established his mature verite style. Following his resignation from Life, and for the rest of his life, he battled destructive personal habits and grappled with an almost monomaniacal documentary impulse that, combined with an obsessive perfectionism in the dark room, prevented him from completing projects. Separated from his family and living in the loft below Young’s, Smith hung out with the musicians, artists, and celebrities who frequented Young’s flat. With a battery of cameras constantly in play, Smith created thousands of images in the “jazz loft,” documenting not only the goings-on inside but the life of the street from his own window, then worked to perfect his prints. So pervasive was Smith’s desire to document his environment that he eventually taped the sounds in the building, recording jam sessions, late-night conversations, and even the ambient sound of television and radio programs. . .

“What is the meaning of Eugene Smith’s “dark room,” a place suffused with jazz music and with his own uncontrollable urge to document it through visual and aural means? Clearly it is a case of a wounded man’s obsession, a graphic representation of the low point in Smith’s career. And yet his images capture the side of jazz that had never gone away—it had always been ambivalent about audiences, unsure of whether the music is for fans or for the musicians themselves. In this semi-private space similar to the places in which the music had been born, the futility of jazz’s bid for popular acceptance played out night after night. The community of jazz in Young’s loft reveled in its outsider status. Properly, perhaps, the only published image from the loft is of Monk, a musician whose extreme individuality made him sui generis, with no real followers, and the image itself, cropped down to emphasize the profile, internalizes the music even more. What is important is what is in Thelonious Sphere Monk’s head. The jazz loft recognized that and celebrated it. Whether music buyers and listeners did was a problem for Columbia to solve. In 1964, they were already scratching their heads over the Beatles and the British Invasion, an extroverted musical movement that made jazz seem more remote, an appropriate music for late night in a downtown loft. Like Roy DeCarava’s fugitive The Sound I Saw, Smith’s jazz loft project captured a particular communal spirit of jazz, but this spirit animated a demimonde world of insiders.”

from Benjamin Cawthra, Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz (University of Chicago Press, 2011), 259-62.

No, I don’t believe that rock killed jazz, or that Miles Davis betrayed it from within, or that it ever ceased being important. A moment of newfound popularity in the late fifties and early sixties (epitomized by the Brubeck Quartet’s hit “Take Five”) proved to close observers at the time to be a false dawn for the music’s commercial fortunes though. In the end, Smith’s introverted art photos documented what eventually became something of an art music. As painful as this period was in Smith’s life, I’m glad he was there in those dark rooms.

For more on W. Eugene Smith:

Sam Stephenson, The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 (Knopf, 2009).

Glenn G. Willumson, W. Eugene Smith and the Photographic Essay (Cambridge, 1992).

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One thought on “W. Eugene Smith and the Jazz Loft

  1. kathy sloane says:

    w.eugene smith was an early inspiration for me and continues to be one of my favorite photographers (along with roy de carava). thanks for this lovely piece, ben. i hope to be able to see the exhibit before it disappears into the archives.

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