W Eugene Smith & the Jazz Loft Project

W. Eugene Smith: Dream Street, Pittsburg 1955

This was the photograph, seen on a postcard I suppose, that first brought Eugene Smith to my attention. The late 70s it would have been, possibly early 80s; I was living in Nottingham and working sporadically towards a Ph D thesis on post-war America, film noir and noir fiction. It barely got started, never mind finished. But if it had and if the published version had needed a cover, then this would surely have been a contender. Extremes of black and white, car titled at an angle in a narrow lane, Freudian analysis of dreams, the letter that never came or perhaps it did, the postman who rang twice. How much more noir can you get?

What I didn’t know at the time was that this was just one of 13,000 photographs Smith took in the course of the two years he spent documenting the city of Pittsburg for an assignment that was meant to take three weeks. There followed another two years in which he sought to print and lay out the resulting work. Not a man to do things by halves. Neither a man to suffer the needs and admonitions of picture editors at magazines like Life gladly. They wanted him to hand over the negatives, take his pay cheque and move on to the next job; he wanted to supervise – if not undertake himself – every step of the process, printing, lay out, everything.

The other thing I didn’t know, before seeing Sara Fishko’s recent documentary, was the extent to which Smith worked on images during the printing process; those bright white horizontals along the car’s bumper, for instance, the flare over the offside wheel, almost certainly the result of a skilful application of ferricyanide bleach.

Fishko’s film, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, which I saw as part of the London Jazz Festival, spends sufficient time on Smith’s earlier work – photo essays for Life magazine, including the remarkable photographs from his time with American forces in the South Pacific (where he was seriously wounded) towards the end of World War Two – for it to be clear why he was considered one of the masters of his field.

W Eugene Smith: Wounded, Dying Infant found by American soldiers in Saipan mountains, June 1944
W Eugene Smith: Three Generations of Welsh Miners, 1950

But Smith’s battles with those who sought to publish his work never seemed to become easier and his own perfectionism ensured that each new venture took longer and longer, expanding to the point where publication was all but impossible. Joining the Magnum Photo Agency doesn’t seem to have helped a great deal and earning a living to help support his family – he and his wife had four children – became more and more difficult. In 1957, he left them (to fend somehow for themselves apparently, the film isn’t clear about this) to live in a dilapidated loft high in a run down building in New York’s Flower District and there he stayed for seven years, sharing the premises with the composer and arranger Hall Overton and the artist David X. Young.

This was – this became – the Jazz Loft. Musicians would come by after work – which often meant around three in the morning – and jam. Beboppers, Dixielanders, Mainstreamers; Zoot Sims, Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk et cetera. And Smith, more obsessive than ever, recorded everything. Recorded on film: 20,000 photographs taken inside the loft, 20,000 more looking down onto the street from the fourth floor window. Recorded on tape: close to 2,000 reel-to-reel tapes capturing not just the music that was played, but concerts from the radio, conversations, telephone calls.

Beautifully put together, Fishko’s film uses a succession of images and sounds, interlaced with recent interviews with those who were involved, to create a sense of creativity emerging from chaos, and never more clearly than in the section dealing with the collaboration between Monk and Overton which led to the successful concert at New York’s Town Hall on February,28th, 1959. We see Overton, whose students including a young Steve Reich, listening to Monk playing one of his compositions – Little Rootie Tootie – on the piano, then copying down the idiosyncratic voicings and intervals before scoring them for an orchestra comprising trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, three saxophones, bass and drums. Not easy to do; not easy to play. The musicians involved, including the alto player, Phil Woods, made it clear how difficult the music was to play, how much rehearsal time was needed – three weeks of rehearsing from three in the morning till early morning, and this, as Woods said, with musicians who hardly ever rehearsed at all.

W Eugene Smith: Thelonious Monk Orchestra in rehearsal, New York, 1959. Monk at the piano, Overton standing alongside doorway.


There’s more information about the movie here …

I’m not at all sure where it might be seen theatrically, but it seems to be available for streaming online. See it if you can.


Robert Frank & The Americans

It was nothing more than happenstance that I saw documentary films about two renowned American photographers on successive days: Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink – Robert Frank in its run at the ICA and Sara Fishko’s Jazz Loft Project – According to W. Eugene Smith which was showing at Barbican as part of the London jazz Festival.


Frank is probably still best known for his photo book, The Americans, which resulted from a Guggenheim-funded road trip he made around the United States in 1955/56. Initially published in France, it didn’t come out in America until 1959, when Grove  Press published it with an introduction by Jack Kerouac.

That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he travelled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film. For this he will definitely be hailed as a great artist in his field.

Well, he was. But not straight off. The reviewer in Popular Photography characterised the work thus: meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons and general sloppiness. Elsewhere he was taken to task for the picture of American and Americans the book presented: this is not the real America and whoever thinks so must hate America, this is not the way we live. Kerouac, not surprisingly, disagreed.

As American a picture – the faces don’t editorialise or criticise or say anything but “This is the way we are in real life and if you don’t like it I don’t know anything about it ’cause I’m living my own life my way and may God bless us all, mebbe” … “if we deserve it” …

Robert Frank : Bute,Montana

There’s a clear relationship in the photographs, I think, to some of the images that Dorothea Lange and others shot during the Depression, except that they were more studied – more consciously ‘artistic’, I suppose, and, as we now know, some of them were less spontaneous than they were made to appear – whereas, as Israel’s film makes clear, Frank was more likely to seize the moment, shoot on the fly. Look at them now, and aside from thinking, yes, how great they are, it’s hard to reach back and see what the negative fuss was about – that’s how used we’ve become, through street photography and the rest, to the kind of photography of which Robert Frank was one of the pioneers.

Robert Frank: Car Accident – U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona

It’s not clear from what Frank has to say in the film if it was the negative reaction to The Americans that caused him to move away from photography into film making, or if he thought, okay, that’s it, that’s my statement, that’s my work, now I need to get on to something new. [He had previously taken two series of photographs in the UK, not published until the 1970s, one in the City of London and the other – quite superb, these – in a mining village in South Wales.]

Robert Frank: Three Welsh Miners

The first film in which he was involved, which also involved Kerouac, was Pull My Daisy, a movie about the Beats that he co-directed with Alfred Leslie. He has carried on with film and video ever since – he’s now 92 and not showing much sign of lying down – most famously Cocksucker Blues, a documentary about the Rolling Stones on tour, of which Mick Jagger said: It’s a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed into the country again.

Much of Israel’s film was shot in and around the converted fisherman’s shack on the coast of Mabou, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, to which Frank moved with his second wife, the sculptor, June Leaf, in the early 70s. The reclusive life seems to suit him, though he does also spend some time in a loft on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, and although he has gone back to photography alongside film and video, it’s a long way from The Americans. These images are manipulated, collaged, yoked together, written on, the negatives scratched and scumbled, highly personalised. As if he’s saying that was then – those people – and this is now, my life, mine and June’s, me.

For more details of Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, including screenings, check out …

It’s showing at the ICA, just off Trafalgar Square, for the rest of this week

I’ll turn my attentions to W. Eugene Smith and the Jazz Loft Project in a few days’ time.


McMinn & Cheese

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life


Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life