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What is Gene Smith doing? »

Photograph by James Karales. Copyright Estate of James Karales

After a couple of years of radio silence here, what better way to return than by offering this photograph of Gene Smith by James Karales circa 1956.  Smith is in his backyard in Croton-on-Hudson testing lenses for his large format cameras in preparation for commissions from the American Institute of Architecture.  Smith’s son, Pat, who confirmed to me yesterday that this was indeed the activity taking place here, can be seen in the middle of the picture.  Funny thing, Smith’s Sinar on the right here, I now own, courtesy of Pat a decade ago, a story told in my forthcoming book, Gene Smith’s Sink, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

This image was sent to me with a query from the Word and Image Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  Later this year they will present an exhibition called “The Camera Focused,” featuring cameras on display in photographs.

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Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials »

See more about our new documentary company, ROCK FISH STEW, and ambitious new projects, including Bull City Summer. For Sam Stephenson’s recent writing, go HERE.

Joseph Mitchell’s Grave »

Last week a group – filmmaker Ivan Weiss, writer Mary Miller, actor Jane Holding, writer Allan Gurganus, and me – visited Fairmont, NC, the hometown of legendary New Yorker magazine writer, Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996).  After visiting a few sites with explicit connections to Mitchell, including his childhood home, we shared a meal at a local barbecue restaurant.  Here are a few pictures from the trip, made by Ivan.  (In 2008 I wrote a piece on Mitchell for Oxford American that you can read HERE).

Iona Presbyterian Church graveyard a few miles outside Fairmont, NC. In Mitchell's introduction to "Up in the Old Hotel" he describes walking through this graveyard with his mother and aunts as a child. L-R. Sam Stephenson, Jane Holding, Allan Gurganus.

At Joseph Mitchell's grave. Fairmont, NC. 12/13. L-R: Mary Miller, Sam Stephenson, Allan Gurganus, Jane Holding.

Joseph Mitchell's Grave. Fairmont, NC.

Supper at F.F. Palace. Main St. Fairmont, NC.

F.F. Palace chef/owner Dunson Johnson. Fairmont, NC.

In the Darkroom with W. Eugene Smith »

My new piece on Paris Review Daily last month about Smith’s darkroom apprentice, James Karales.

James Karales, Lower East Side, New York, 1969, black-and-white photograph, 13 1/2 X 16 5/8 inches.

From Fiddlers Convention to Thomas Pynchon »

The 78th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention is this week in Galax, Virginia, a mountain town of around 7500 people.  My mother, Frances Hampton Stephenson, was born and raised in Galax, graduating from high school there in 1951.  A number of her elders were judges at the Convention in the early days, including her father, Virdie Isaiah Griggs Hampton, b. 1884 – d. 1961 (he was fifty when my Mom was born).

My first cousin Ted Reavis found a booklet in a local library entitled “The First Forty Years of the Old Fiddlers Convention” by Herman K. Williams, a former Carroll County sheriff and Galax postmaster who was clearly doing his best to overcome spotty official records.  Above is a page indicating my grandfather’s brother, Hurley Hampton, was a judge in 1945.  Another page shows my great grandfather’s brother, Kemper Hampton, was a judge in 1936, the Convention’s second year.

There is no documentation in Williams’ booklet of my grandfather Virdie being a judge, but my cousin Ted and his brother Charles have memories of sitting with him at the Convention while he fell asleep in his judging chair.  That’s a story for another day.  Meanwhile, here is a picture I snapped this morning of Virdie’s banjo and fiddle.  A luthier in Raleigh told me these were not historically important instruments, except to our family, of course.

The instruments of Virdie Isaiah Griggs Hampton (1884-1961)

My first cousin Pat Hampton Bolt (twenty-seven years my senior), and her husband, Charles, attended Galax High School with Ray Roberts, who passed away in 2009 after an illustrious career as an editor for Viking, Penguin, and Henry Holt in New York.  Among others, Ray was longtime editor of seminal writer Thomas Pynchon.  I have a writer friend who was once Ray’s assistant.  He told me that Ray was as urbane and sophisticated as you’d expect a top New York editor to be, but that on occasion, when pressure was peaking, Ray could “go Galax on you.”  I told him I know how that is.

Pat and Charles once showed me their high school yearbook from the late 1950s and my mind was blown when they said that Ray Roberts’ name was underneath a picture of somebody else and his picture was above another name.  You can’t make that up.  Pynchon, of course, is a legendary recluse whose identity and location have been questioned for decades.  At one point there were rumors that Ray Roberts was Pynchon.  But now that Ray has passed away and Pynchon is still publishing, evidence seems to indicate otherwise.

Bull City Summer »

Light in a Summer Night. By Frank Hunter. Durham Bulls Athletic Park. 2013.

Bull City Summer is the inaugural project of my new Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, an outfit to develop collaborative documentary projects.  More on RFS later.  Meanwhile, here are some Bull City Summer press links:

My Paris Review Daily piece on the project, posted August 7, 2013, featuring a video interview with Alec Soth by Ivan Weiss.

The People Behind Bull City Summer.”  Independent Weekly.  Cover story by David Fellerath.  July 31, 2013.

A Day with Hiroshi Watanabe at the DBAP.”  Independent Weekly.  Story by Chris Vitiello.  July 31, 2013.

The Bulls of Summer.”  Raleigh News & Observer piece by David Menconi w/photo gallery.  June 1, 2013.

A photo gallery plus interview with me on The Morning News.  June 3, 2013.

The complete bi-weekly series on Paris Review Daily.

Bull City Summer video trailer by Ivan Weiss.

Southern Holiday 3-Part Series in Paris Review »

In December I took a 3-week road trip around the South and wrote about it for Paris Review Daily. Part 1 focuses on the area of rural, coastal South Carolina where W. Eugene Smith made his “Nurse Midwife” essay in 1951.  Part 2 covers a drive from the coast of Georgia to Apalachicola, Florida and then a few days in the latter place.  Part 3 is about Smith’s passions for Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and much of it takes place in Laurel, Mississippi, fictional hometown of Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois.

Hotel Pinehurst, ca. 1940s, perhaps Tennessee Williams' inspiration for the hotel where Blanche DuBois lived after she lost Belle Reve and before she moved to New Orleans.

Piece on Charlie Montoyo in Paris Review »

Here’s my latest piece for Paris Review Daily, a portrait of Durham Bulls’ manager Charlie Montoyo, with a contribution from my longtime collaborator, Kate Joyce.

Charlie Montoyo coaching third base. Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Aug. 7, 2012. Photo by Kate Joyce.

Dropping Pianos on Bergen Street »

In July we convened a weeklong workshop at the Invisible Dog Art Center with actors working through scenes of Jaymes Jorsling’s play called A(Loft) Modulation, a.k.a Chaos Manor, which is based on my book-in-progress for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Gene Smith’s Sink. Christopher McElroen directed the proceedings with his customary, unique blend of authority and curiosity.  This project began last summer with a series of workshops that culminated in a multi-media event (the piano wasn’t dropped after all) in the Brooklyn Book Festival, in association with Brigid Hughes and A Public Space.  This year we’ll be back at the BBF (September 20, Invisible Dog, 8pm), this time with a more conventional public reading of Jaymes’ new script, set in a dilapidated loft building in Manhattan’s wholesale flower district 1957-1965, featuring a photographer and a number of underground musicians.  Below are three of my iPhone photos from the workshops a couple of weeks ago.  Theater professionals absorb material in a different way than would, say, a curator, critic, or scholar.  Their effort is to inhabit characters, not analyze or categorize them and there is a refreshing, fearless quality to the way they work.  This exercise should make an impact on my writing in Gene Smith’s Sink, if I’m any good.

L-R: Eddie R. Brown, III; Christopher McElroen; Brian D. Coats; Bobby Moreno; Pj Sosko.

Clockwise: Pj Sosko (light blue tank); Marta Reimen; Teagle Bougere; Julia Watt; Jaymes Jorsling; Eddie R. Brown, III; Chris McElroen; Brian D. Coats; Bobby Moreno.

Bergen Street. Invisible Dog. Main floor, back studio during a break. July 2012.

Piece on Joe Henry in Paris Review »

Joe Henry's basement studio, Pasadena, CA. Photo by Michael Wilson.

HERE is my latest piece for Paris Review Daily, a profile of musician Joe Henry.