Sam Stephenson made it. Two decades of work piecing together the life of photographer W. Eugene Smith has resulted in a brief but profound meditation on what we can know about a person and what we can’t. Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View appeared this fall and Stephenson will be visiting my school, California State University, Fullerton Wednesday, October 25, for the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History’s Hansen Lecture. The talk is free and open to the public and begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Titan Student Union Pavilion A. As an admirer of Smith’s photography and Stephenson’s writing, it is a pleasure to welcome him to our campus. Stephenson’s 1999 article on Smith’s jazz photographs in the now lamented documentary magazine DoubleTake was one spark that ultimately led to Blue Notes in Black and White. I treated Smith briefly in my book but not because of the photographs. I knew Sam Stephenson was deep into the vast Smith archive and would have a lot of important things to say about the “jazz loft” soon enough.
Stephenson’s talk, “Wide-Angle View: An Experimental Approach to Writing and Documentary Work,” is based on his research into Smith, a trailblazing photojournalist for Life but a mysterious and provocative figure. Stephenson has written books and curated exhibitions on two of Smith’s major unfinished projects: Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project (2003) and The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965 (2009). Readers of this blog can learn more about the work of both Smith and Stephenson here and here.
Stephenson, formerly of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, is the director of Rockfish Stew Institute of Literature & Materials, an organization dedicated to fostering and documenting expressive public culture in a variety of forms. Stephenson coordinated, edited, and curated Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark (2014), for which a team of photographers and writers documented a season at the minor league home of the Durham Bulls baseball team, resulting in an exhibition and book. He is co-producer of a multimedia documentary project on the Big Ears experimental music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, and the Oxford American among other publications.
In addition to the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History, Stephenson’s lecture is sponsored by the College of Communications, and the University Honors Program, the College of Humanities & Social Sciences, the Department of History, and the Cultural and Public History Association.
The Hansen Lectureship in Oral and Public History was established in 2008 to honor Professor Arthur Hansen, former director of the Center for Oral and Public History. The Hansen Lectureship attracts nationally prominent speakers whose work engages or illustrates the value of oral and public history. The Lectureship also provides an annual fellowship for a CSUF student pursuing a Master’s degree with an emphasis in oral and public history.
Established in 1968, the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History is a teaching, training, research, publication, and public service archive located at CSU Fullerton’s Pollak Library. It contains more than 5,500 oral histories covering a wide range of people and topics from California and beyond.