Sam Stephenson

About the Author

Sam Stephenson was the 2012-13 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Professor of Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.  He is a partner in Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, a Durham-based documentary company.

For more than a decade he was the director of The Jazz Loft Project (JLP) at CDS.  He has studied the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith since 1997.  His first book, Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project was published by W.W. Norton/CDS in 2001.  In 2009 Alfred A. Knopf published his book, The Jazz Loft Project: The Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue.  Currently he is writing a biography of Smith entitled Gene Smith’s Sink, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  Since 1997 Stephenson has conducted more than 500 oral history interviews, revealing an underground story of jazz and post-War arts unpreserved in the iconography.  JLP won a 2010 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award,and a 2010 Innovative Use of Archives Award from the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York.

Periodicals that have published Stephenson’s work include Paris Review, New York Times, Tin House, A Public Space, Oxford American, and Smithsonian.  He won a 2001-2002 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He curated exhibitions for both Dream Street and The Jazz Loft Project that had runs at various museums such as the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, The International Center of Photography in New York, the New York Public Library, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke.   He co-produced the Jazz Loft Project Radio Series with Sara Fishko and WNYC: New York Public Radio.  He has been featured on NPR several times, NBC’s Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning, CNN, and the BBC.

In April 2013 Stephenson formed the Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, a new platform from which to perform documentary work.  Rock Fish Stew’s inaugural project was Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ball Park, which concerns a season-long project to document the sights and sounds and stories at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, employing a team of writers, art photographers, and mixed-media artists.

current projects

Details at Rock Fish Stew’s website.

A biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux, working title Gene Smith’s Sink.  Manuscript due February 2014.

A series of pieces for Paris Review Daily, some stemming from work on Gene Smith’s Sink, some unrelated. Pieces can be read HERE.

A documentary film based on his book, The Jazz Loft Project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Working with director Sara Fishko and WNYC: New York Public Radio.  Fishko was the director of the Jazz Loft Radio Project.

Chaos Manor, a.k.a (A)Loft Modulation, a theater project in partnership with playwright Jaymes Jorsling and director, Christopher McElroen, who directed the acclaimed Waiting for Godot in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Katrina and directed the first-ever adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible ManChaos Manor’s first step was an experimental 45-minute incarnation at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn September 15-17, 2011, and a public reading of Jorsling’s script on September 20, 2012, both Bookend events of the Brooklyn Book Festival.  The project is now being workshopped for stage.

Spring 2013 Stephenson founded a new literary-documentary venture based in Chapel Hill-Durham called Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, a platform on which to develop collaborative documentary projects.

Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark and Beyond is the first pilot project of Rock Fish Stew. A team of fifteen photographers and writers are converging on the Durham Bulls Athletic Park during the 2013 season to document what happens on and off the field.  The project website is HERE.



A TV series pilot set in 1959 in a Manhattan loft building which is an after-hours haunt of jazz musicians, most struggling.

For Sam Stephenson’s bio, please download (PDF).


Writing Tennessee Williams’ Life.”  Paris Review Daily.  November 5, 2014.

Stalking Sean O’Casey.”  Paris Review Daily.  September 18, 2014.

An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane.”  Paris Review Daily.  June 3, 2014.

The Big Book: W. Eugene Smith’s Unseen Opus.”  Paris Review Daily.  April 11, 2014.

In the Darkroom with W. Eugene Smith.”  Paris Review Daily.  November 20, 2013.

The Liminal Space.”  Paris Review Daily.  August 7, 2013.

Southern Holiday Pt. 3.”  Paris Review Daily.  March 20, 2013.

Southern Holiday Pt. 2.” Paris Review Daily.  February 28, 2013.

Southern Holiday Pt. 1.”  Paris Review Daily.  January 30, 2013.

Field Notes,” a profile of Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo in Paris Review Daily. August 20, 2012.

A Mark So Fine: Joe Henry and You.” Profile of musician Joe Henry.  On Paris Review Daily. May 18, 2012.

Two Poets,” on Claudia Emerson and Betty Adcock.  On Paris Review Daily. (March 20, 2012).

Branford Marsalis.” On Paris Review Daily.  (December 10, 2011).

Sonny Clark: Melody and Melancholy” in issue #50 of Tin House, Winter 2011-12, the “Beauty” issue.

Late Night Sports Radio,” a 12-part series I contributed to The Morning News in summer and fall 2011.

W. Eugene Smith’s Wichita” on Paris Review Daily (June 22, 2011).

Mary Frank” on Paris Review Daily (May 26, 2011)

Tamas Janda” on Paris Review Daily (April 20, 2011)

Tennessee Williams” on Paris Review Daily (March 30, 2011)

Letter from Guam” on Paris Review Daily (March 23, 2011)

Letter from Japan” on Paris Review Daily (March 8, 2011).

Sonny Clark” Pt. 2 on Paris Review Daily (January 26, 2011).

Sonny Clark” on Paris Review Daily (January 13, 2011).

Dorrie Glenn Woodson” on Paris Review Daily (12/22/10).

W.Eugene Smith,” a new series I’m beginning for Paris Review Daily (12/20/10).  The end of this piece points toward my second piece about Dorrie Woodson.

Whitney Balliett’s Studio (  June 23, 2010)

Eugene Smith: Jazz Loft (Paris Review, Fall 2009)

Safe at Home (New York Times Book Review. June 1, 2008)

The Collector of the Everyday: Visiting the hometown of the great New York writer Joseph Mitchell. (Oxford American, Summer 2008) *

Gene Smith’s Sink (A Public Space, 2007)

Thelonious Monk: Is This Home? (Oxford American, 2007 Music Issue, Cover Story) **

Jazzed About Roy Haynes (Smithsonian, December, 2003)

What Happened to Ronnie Free? (Oxford American, July/August, 2000)

* Hear “Remembering Joseph Mitchell,” interview with Sam and writer Allan Gurganus on Frank Stasio’s program, The State of Things (WUNC: North Carolina Public Radio.  July 17, 2008).

** Listen to NPR’s segment based on this article to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Monk’s birth, October 10, 2007.  Digging Up Thelonious Monk’s Southern Roots.

Press & Interview

For all 2014 press on Bull City Summer, go HERE.  A good summary of the project can be found in the News & ObserverJune 21, 2014.

Interview regarding the Bull City Summer Project in The Morning News. June 3, 2013.

The Bulls of Summer.”  Story and photo gallery on Bull City Summer. By David Menconi.  Raleigh News & Observer.  June 1, 2013.

Nina Simone…What More can I Say?” – WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio’s State of Things program, interviewed during an hour-long tribute to Nina Simone. September 12, 2012.

Needle in the Groove,” the New Yorker’s Richard Brody commenting on my piece in Sonny Clark in the new issue of Tin House.  New Yorker. November 28, 2011.

Managed Mayhem,” Dawn Chan on Chaos Manor. Paris Review Daily.  September 15, 2011.

Conversation b/w Sam Stephenson and Roland Kelts, Following Eugene Smith to Japan, in A Public Space. September 13, 2011.

“Sam has, with his work on the Jazz Loft, pioneered a new kind of historical research—His work would make Studs Terkel snap his suspenders with glee and John Dos Passos light up a victory cigar.” – Aaron Greenwald.  Independent Weekly 2011 Indy Arts Award article on Sam.  (July 20, 2011).

“Sam Stephenson…is doing remarkable research on the life of short-lived pianist and composer Sonny clark.” – Richard Brody, New Yorker, July 21, 2011.

Pittsburgh Forges Ahead” – Washington Post.  March 26, 2011.  It’s heartening to know that Dream Street is still noticed.

New Yorker’s Richard Brody: “a terribly sad, powerfully evocative biographical portrait” of jazz pianist Sonny Clark by S.S. (New Yorker. January 13, 2011)

JLP book “a work of social archaeology” – Sean O’Hagan.  (London Guardian. December 10, 2010).

JLP wins 2010 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.  November 8, 2010.

Radio interview, KRML 94.7 FM.  (KRML. Carmel, CA.  September 6, 2010)

Interview, “A Loft-y’ Vision of Jazz” (All About Jazz, April 7, 2010)

Radio interview, KOWS 107.3 FM. (KOWS. Occidental, CA. April 5, 2010)

Every obsessive deserves his own obsessive Boswell, and W. Eugene Smith has his in Sam Stephenson,” by Fred Kaplan.  (New York magazine.  December 27, 2009) interview with Sam (Powells Books, December 10, 2009)

Sam on the Leonard Lopate Show (WNYC: New York Public Radio, December 8, 2009)

Interview, “A Hidden Jazz Realm” (Independent Weekly, December 2, 2009)

Radio interview, “The Jazz Loft Project,” a joint interview with jazz loft legend Ronnie Free on Frank Stasio’s program, The State of Things, (WUNC: North Carolina Public Radio.  December 2, 2009)

Dwight Garner on JLP book:  ”Chaotic and soulful…The book is an elegiac stew of sight and sound, and a singularly weird, vital and thrumming American document.” (New York Times.  November 15, 2009).

Sam interviewed by Ann Curry on NBC’s Today Show (November 13, 2009).  It’s “Stephen-son” not “Steffen-son.”

Radio interview, Remembering Joseph Mitchell,” a joint interview with Sam and writer Allan Gurganus on Frank Stasio’s program, The State of Things (WUNC: North Carolina Public Radio.  July 17, 2008).

BBC-TV’s 2007 series, Genius of Photography, Sam featured in Episode 3 talking about Smith’s Pittsburgh work, on youtube here, go to around the 7:15 mark of this clip.  The still photo above, by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer Bill Wade, comes from this BBC shoot.

For up-to-date Jazz Loft Project press, click here.