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FSG’s Catalog Description of Gene Smith’s Sink »

From Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Spring 2017 catalog, the description of Sam Stephenson’s new book, Gene Smith’s Sink:

In an interview with Philippe Halsman, W. Eugene Smith remarked: “I didn’t write the rules—why should I follow them?” Famously unabashed, Smith is photography’s most celebrated humanist. During his reign as photo essayist at Life magazine in the 1940s and 1950s, he established himself as an intimate chronicler of human culture. His photographs of jazz musicians, disaster, doctors, and midwives revolutionized the role that image-making played in journalism, transforming photography for decades to come.

In 1997, lured by the intoxicating trail of people that emerged from Smith’s stupefying archive, Sam Stephenson set out on a quest to research those that knew him from various angles. In Gene Smith’s Sink, Stephenson revives Smith’s life and legacy, merging traditional biography with highly untraditional digressions. Traveling across twenty-nine states, Japan, and the Pacific, Stephenson tracks down a lively cast of characters, including the playwright Tennessee Williams, to whom Smith likened himself; avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, with whom he once shared a chalet; artist Mary Frank, who was married to his friend Robert Frank; and Thelonious Monk and Sonny Clark, of whom Smith recorded surreptitious audio tapes.

The result of twenty years of research, Gene Smith’s Sink is an unprecedented look into the photographer’s beguiling legacy and the subjects around him.

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Dinner in Bloomington / Jazz Loft Project Review »

Last night in Bloomington, Indiana I had dinner with Jonathan Elmer, professor of English, director of IU’s College Arts and Humanities Institute, and artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival.  Many riveting things were discussed, notably Jonathan’s mention of Poe’s precedent for the “averted focus” employed in my book forthcoming next year, Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View (FSG, August 2017), and Lennie Tristano’s debt to Poe as well.

It was the first time Jonathan and I met, although we’ve known of each other for several years.  He wrote an extraordinarily thoughtful review of The Jazz Loft Project for the journal, American Literary History.  Jonathan got permission for me to link the review HERE.  Deep gratitude to him for this and more.


The Greatest: My Own Story (1975) »

I just dug this out of my bookshelves.  My older brother Steve probably bought it at Small’s Bookstore down the street from our house in downtown “little” Washington (N.C.) when it came out in 1975.  He was a massive boxing fan.  He installed a speed bag in the back of our garage.  In 1976, my other older brother Hale and I took the bus to Raleigh to meet Steve and watch Ali fight the Japanese wrestler Inoki on closed circuit TV.  The fight was lame but it was still fun for me, especially at age nine.  Looking at the book now, I see it’s a First Edition.  Score one for the little brother.

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.

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.