Famously unabashed, W. Eugene Smith was photography’s most celebrated humanist. As a photo essayist at Life magazine in the 1940s and ’50s, he established himself as an intimate chronicler of human culture. His photographs of war and disaster, villages and metropolises, doctors and midwives, revolutionized the role of images in journalism, transforming photography for decades to come.
When Smith died in 1978, he left behind eighteen dollars in the bank and forty-four thousand pounds of archives. He was only fifty-nine, but he was flat worn-out. His death certificate read “stroke,” but, as was said of the immortal jazzman Charlie Parker, Smith died of “everything,” from drug and alcohol benders to weeklong work sessions with no sleep.
Lured by the intoxicating trail of people that emerged from Smith’s stupefying archive, Sam Stephenson began a quest to trace his footsteps. In Gene Smith’s Sink, Stephenson merges traditional biography with rhythmic digressions to revive Smith’s life and legacy. Traveling across twenty-nine states, Japan, and the Pacific, Stephenson profiles a lively cast of characters, including the playwright Tennessee Williams, to whom Smith likened himself; the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, with whom he once shared a Swiss chalet; the artist Mary Frank, who was married to his friend Robert Frank; the jazz pianists Thelonious Monk and Sonny Clark, whose music was taped by Smith in his loft; and a series of obscure caregivers who helped keep Smith on his feet. The distillation of twenty years of research, Gene Smith’s Sink is an unprecedented look into the photographer’s potent legacy and the subjects around him.
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On the night of Friday, April 21, 1939, Gene Smith went to the Forty-Sixth Street Theatre between Broadway and Eighth Avenue to photograph the opening of a new show. The assignment came through his agency, Black Star, and he expected the resulting pictures to run in Life, the exciting new magazine that began publishing his work regularly in 1938 when he was only nineteen years old. He was now twenty and on freelance retainer.
Opening was Mexicana, a revue sponsored by the Republic of Mexico and featuring 142 musicians, singers, actors, and dancers. Twelve days earlier, a train arrived at Penn Station carrying nearly two hundred performers, crew members, and diplomats from Mexico City, dozens of cases of costumes, murals of painted scenery, and two chickens that were intended to fight onstage (U.S. laws prevented it). According to reports, "nine- tenths" of the entourage had never visited the United States.
Mexicana was the first Broadway show presented by a foreign government. It arrived in conjunction with Mexico's exhibit at the heralded New York World's Fair, which opened a few days later in Queens. Ominous economic and political undertows were spreading around the globe — and the 1938–39 New York theater season had been dismal, even by standards set earlier in the Depression — but the much- anticipated Fair generated a breeze of hope and goodwill around the city.
At the time, Smith and his mother, Nettie Lee Caplinger Smith, age forty-nine, lived together on Fordham Road in the Bronx, near the Botanical Garden. Gene endured less than a year at Notre Dame on a photography scholarship before dropping out and moving to New York. Nettie followed, handling her son's schedule and finances, and she assisted him in the darkroom. A devout, converted Catholic, she was domineering and stern. Gene's cousins in Kansas feared her. From her he inherited an indomitable willpower — hers, grim and authoritative; his, more chameleonic and enigmatic; the shared core quality a cord that riddled them.
Gene soon was hired to be a staff photographer at Newsweek, but he was fired for using the new, more flexible "miniature" 21/4-inch-square cameras that the magazine prohibited. In a depressed era when most young adults grasped for any foothold they could find, the nineteen-year-old Smith had already given up a major university scholarship and challenged a prominent magazine's editorial boundaries until he was fired. He wouldn't follow his father's burdened, suit-and-tie path to an early death; he might kill himself, but in a different way.
Smith was a normal-size man, five foot nine or ten (according to his passports), with sandy hair, and he wore glasses. Like most photographers who lug cameras, tripods, and bags of equipment, his upper body was wiry strong. He spent hours per day holding cameras to his face like a curl exercise and maneuvering the lenses, dials, levers, and buttons with his fingers, forging sinews in his biceps, forearms, and hands. Then in the darkroom he spent many more hours rooting his hands around the developing reels, the enlarger, the sinks and basins, and the clothesline where he hung prints. Near the end of his life, in his fifties, when doctors said he had the distressed organs of a man several decades older, his hands and arms remained those of a professional gardener or auto mechanic.
On the afternoon of April 21, 1939, the temperature in Central Park peaked at fifty-nine degrees and there were scattered spring showers. By the time the doors opened at the Forty-Sixth Street Theatre, a dark drizzle filtered the streetlights and dampened the sidewalks. The seats were full but not sold-out.
The Forty-Sixth Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) was designed by the most prolific architect in the Broadway theater district, Herbert J. Krapp, during the burgeoning 1920s. It was grand and elegant, typical of American glamour of the time, with neo-Renaissance structures and extensive, ornate terra-cotta details.
What happened inside the theater that night was described this way by Celestino Gorostiza, the director of fine arts of the Mexican Ministry of Education: "Mexicana aims to cover Mexican life in song and dance and pantomime from the earliest Aztec times down to today, and at the same time it brings together a kind of kaleidoscope of all the costumes and customs and legends of every geological division of the republic."
The curtain rose at 8:30 p.m. Over the next three-plus hours dramatic colors were displayed in mural backdrops created by followers of Diego Rivera. Bright costumes crisscrossed the stage — female dancers wearing woven rainbow sashes and wraparounds, with colorful ribbons and hoop earrings, or dark colored dresses with intricate trimming and glistening sequins and beads sewn into the fabric. The male dancers and musicians wore traditional Spanish charro suits, in a variety of colors, with silver studs on their pants and big bows tied around their necks. There were also more traditional outfits with men wearing ponchos and women dark skirts with aprons and white embroidered shirts. There were big, straw-colored sombreros with a spiral weave for men and women, and various head wraps, often flowered, for the women.
Reviews of Mexicana emphasized the visuals, using words and phrases such as "sun-kissed colorful," "glowing loveliness," "brilliant colors." The "flow" of the "native costumes" impressed one writer and the "primitive vitality" of the scenery another. In virtually every review, all written by men, the "lovely girls" were mentioned; the "almond-skinned beauties," wrote one, "the fetching senoritas," wrote another. One notice mentioned that "[Mexicana] boasts of [dancer] Marissa Flores among other appealing items."
The subtitle of Mexicana in a hand-typed rehearsal outline was "A Mexican Folk Show," but in the published Broadway Playbill it was "A Musical Extravaganza." The change may have been made by publicists seeking to cut off at the pass condescending comments based on ethnicity, which came about anyway. In the New York Daily News, John Chapman called the show "one of the most disarmingly naïve entertainments ever presented on a Broadway stage surfeited with professional artifice." In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson said that the show "lacks showmanship" and that it needed a professional director (from New York, no doubt, he meant) to "make something dynamic out of it."
Several critics pointed out the merits of Mexicana — Flores and her dance partner José Fernandez, and a comic baseball pantomime — but then they complained that it was overlong and monotonous, its initial energy and vitality diluted in the second act. The reviews stress the show's folk, comic, and visual elements, not the music. The only musician singled out was the guitarist Vicente Gomez, a flamenco virtuoso who had performed at New York's Town Hall the year before.
The producers of Mexicana, in their eagerness, may have tried to do too much. The show's Playbill indicates there were twenty-seven scenes in two acts. A surviving rehearsal outline listed only twenty scenes. Seven scenes were added, perhaps during the twelve days between arriving in New York and opening night. Maybe this was a mistake, maybe the extra scenes made the production too long. But it's also possible that the critics responded the same way more Eurocentric observers often respond to musical forms like reggae and salsa the first time they hear them: Are they playing the same song over and over again?
The show entranced Gene Smith from beginning to end. In the July 1943 issue of Popular Photography, Peter Martin profiled him in an article called "The Kid Who Lived Photography." Martin reported that Smith attended sixty-three consecutive performances of Mexicana, obsessed with Marissa Flores and in particular her dancing to the Intermezzo from Enrique Granados's 1915 opera, Goyescas, the twenty-sixth of twenty-seven scenes in the show.
Flores and her partner José Fernandez danced the penultimate scenes of both acts. In act 1 they performed a "bulerias" with Gomez on guitar. It's a form of flamenco that allows for the most improvisation and passion, and flamenco performances typically build to it, as act 1 of Mexicana did (the final scene of act 1 was a wedding). We can't know exactly what the performance of Flores and Fernandez looked like from Smith's front-row seat, but from Gomez's recorded work we know his guitar would have sounded alert and torrential in small, cascading emotional moments. With Flores's castanets clicking in flamenco's complex, heated rhythms, her black hair in long dual braided ponytails under a scarf, her tan skin, dark eyes, and her native dress whipping and flowing on her fluid dancer's body, she would have made visible Gomez's guitar sounds. She impressed Smith like no woman he had ever seen.
In act 2, Flores and Fernandez essentially closed the show with their performance of the Intermezzo from Goyescas (the scene following was a "Finale" with no performers listed in the Playbill; it was presumably an encore number with the whole cast onstage). Flores bandied her castanets again, but it was a more classical dance than the raw flamenco bulerias she performed with Fernandez earlier. Rather than backed by the expressive solo guitarist Gomez, this time the dancers were backed by a pit orchestra and the movements were certainly slower and more choreographed, more graceful in a manner that Smith may have appreciated from high school ballroom dancing, but no less emotional. Flores's ability to perform on the two levels must have excited Smith.
According to Martin's 1943 profile in Popular Photography, Smith bought a vinyl record containing the Intermezzo and played it repeatedly every night. Along with his memory of Flores, the record may have struck another chord for Smith: that the composer Granados was inspired by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya, of whom Granados wrote, "I am enamored with the psychology of Goya, with his palette, with him, with his muse the Duchess of Alba, with his quarrels, with his models, his loves and flatteries. That whitish pink of the cheeks, contrasting with the blend of black velvet; those subterranean creatures, hands of mother-of-pearl and jasmine resting on jet trinkets, have possessed me." Smith identified with a psychology of contrast like this, and he may have been influenced by Goya's ability to express these contrasts with paint. Smith's eventual war photography, his later work in Spain ... the threads may extend back to Mexicana. But there are more tangible threads that connect Smith's future life to what happened in the Forty-Sixth Street Theater.
Smith attended Mexicana with Ilse Stadler, a writer-researcher with Black Star who was still alive when Smith's first biographer, Jim Hughes, was researching his book in the 1980s. Stadler confirmed that Smith attended the show night after night. She also told Hughes that Smith invited Marissa Flores to a midnight dinner after each show. Flores attended with a singer from the cast who spoke English. The singer fell in love with Smith and she wrote him long love letters in Spanish upon her return to Mexico City. Smith had those letters translated by Carmen Martinez, a Puerto Rican American he connected with through Black Star. Smith eventually married Martinez and they named their first daughter Marissa.
Thirty years later, in the 1969 Aperture monograph financed by his third Guggenheim Fellowship, Smith summarized his Mexicana experience this way: "Discovered responsiveness to 'wonderment world of music,' which became and continued as one of several major influences in development of views on ethics, professional integrity, and the creative process." Another major influence, mentioned by him throughout his career, was theater.
For the next seven decades the story of Smith attending these sixty-three consecutive shows has been repeated often, including by me. The trouble is, Mexicana was performed only thirty-five times.
On April 30, 1936, a day before his life insurance policy expired, Gene Smith's father drove to a hospital parking lot two miles from their home on the riverbank and blew open his stomach with a shotgun. Suicides made news on a weekly basis in Kansas at the time, sometimes daily, but the brief stories were usually buried in small print in the back of the paper, like classified ads. William Smith's headlines were on the front page above the fold of both daily papers. Seventeen-year-old Gene graduated from high school a month later.
Smith dropped out of Notre Dame and moved to New York to become a full-time professional photographer. Over the next forty years, until his death in 1978, Smith returned to Wichita only a handful of times, and in the voluminous tape recordings from his Sixth Avenue loft, he talks about his father's suicide only once. He called it a "relief," because he could see his father being crushed under the weight of economic and social pressures.
Nabokov once wrote that probing his childhood was "the next best thing to probing one's eternity." I can see that. But what about probing someone else's childhood, someone long dead? Rather than my memory or other people's memories (there aren't many alive today who can attest to Smith's childhood in Wichita), I'm probing faint footprints, artifacts, news clippings. Whatever I can find.
In Henry James's preface to The Aspern Papers, he refers to a principle I've found pertinent in my years researching Smith: "That odd law," James writes, "which somehow always makes the minimum of valid suggestion serve the man of imagination better than the maximum. The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take." Which one am I — the historian or the dramatist?
During my 2011 visit to Wichita, I followed Smith's trail to the sanctuary of St. Mary's Cathedral, where he had been an altar boy — he attended the Cathedral School through the eleventh grade. I found his tenth-grade 1934 Cathedral School yearbook in a moldy archive room, the lightbulbs burned out. I propped open the door to get enough light, using the flashlight on my phone.
Construction on the cathedral was completed in 1912 — the facilities manager told me the majestic sanctuary hadn't changed since. I stood in the back and looked toward the altar. Smith had walked down the center aisle wearing a white robe, carrying lit candles and gold crosses that were several feet taller than him. The natural lighting in the vaulted room was spectacular. Pockets of near-blackness were offset by light streaming through stained-glass windows. The lit spaces were cradled by shadows, creating patterns that directed my eye.
The cathedral sanctuary called to mind the 1933 treatise on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows by the Japanese novelist Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, who wrote, "The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty's end."
The lighting in the sanctuary unmistakably resembled a vintage Smith print — the African-American nurse-midwife birthing a baby in rural, poverty-stricken South Carolina in 1951, or the mother bathing her deformed child in pollution-ravaged Minamata in 1971. Using his idiosyncratic darkroom shading techniques, Smith visually swaddled and caressed these two caregivers, innocent, he felt, in a way he wasn't. He exalted them, loved them, created odes to them. Another of his most famous photographs is of a woman spinning yarn in his 1951 project "Spanish Village." She, too, is caressed by shadows as she carefully performs her craft.
Smith was born in Wichita in 1918. Between 1900 and 1930, Wichita's population grew almost fivefold, from 24,000 to 110,000. It was a pioneer town. With few binding traditions and conventions, anything could happen. People could move there from the farm and take risks. They called it Magic City.
His father owned a grain business and was elected president of Wichita's Board of Trade; his mother, Nettie, was a photographer, and she kept a darkroom in the house. Young Gene started photographing early, and as a teenager he made pictures for the local papers, cruising around town in the family station wagon with the words "W. Eugene Smith, Photographer" painted on the side.
I once stayed in a bed-and-breakfast a block from Smith's childhood homes in the Riverside neighborhood on the bank of the Arkansas River. It was a quiet, well-to-do suburb in Smith's day. Susan Nelson, mother of the novelist Antonya Nelson, grew up down the street from the Smiths. She described to me a friendly place where nobody locked doors and it was okay to borrow books from neighbors' shelves without asking, as long as you returned them when you were finished.
Excerpted from "Gene Smith's Sink"
Copyright © 2017 Sam Stephenson.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Mexicana 11
2 Wichita 18
3 List of Projects 25
4 Jim Karales 31
5 The Big Book 39
6 Larry Clark 45
7 Camino Real 47
8 Sean O'Casey 52
9 Chuck-Wills-Widow 59
10 Sonny Clark 63
11 What Happened to Ronnie Free? 74
12 Tamas Janda 93
13 Dorrie Glenn Woodson 99
14 Mary Frank 105
15 A Sample of Smith's Papers and Correspondence, 1959-1961 111
16 Ruth Fetske 116
17 Hall Overton Calvin Albert 125
18 Overron Thelonious Monk 139
19 Aileen Mioko Smith 149
20 Interpreter Needed 155
21 Meeting at Narita 157
22 Kazuhiko Motomura 160
23 Reikon 166
24 Takeshi Ishikawa 172
25 Saipan 179
26 A Long Telegram 187
27 Maude Callen 191
28 Blanche Dubois Lena Grove 196