Publication Date: August 22, 2017  |  Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Publication Date: August 22, 2017 | Farrar, Straus & Giroux
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 musical 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.


“Sam Stephenson’s brave and wise book, both more and less than a biography, is a spare demonstration of a huge idea: that nothing is ever finished and nobody is really knowable.  And so the roundabout way to know a difficult and extraordinary creator like Gene Smith, or really anyone, may be the most effective and authentic way.”

Ben Ratliff, author of Every Song Ever. New York.


“Gene Smith’s Sink is a trip down the plughole of W. Eugene Smith’s darkroom sink into a world that’s red lit, Dexedrine fuelled, fragrant with hypo and whisky, and soundtracked by some of the greatest jazz musicians of the C20th.

Sam Stephenson’s route into, through, and out of the labyrinth of Smith’s world is a divination of a life from the scraps – sounds, images, objects, relationships –left behind.

This terrific book depicts the uncanniness that results from inhabiting another artist’s life and work this profoundly. Life imitating art imitating life imitating art.”

Grant Gee, filmmaker, director of PATIENCE (After Sebald); Innocence of Memories: Orhan Pamuk’s Museum & Istanbul; and Radiohead: Meeting People is Easy.


“Eugene Smith’s passions, including his obsession for Tennessee Williams’ play Camino Real, shaped the narrative of his life into his own version of Camino Real for all the reasons captured in Esmeralda’s prayer. Stephenson listens and records it all in his stunning Gene Smith’s Sink.  Sound is more present here than in any book I’ve ever read. The reader is always leaning forward listening, so that when the call of the chuck-will’s-widow occurs on Sixth Avenue in the middle of the book, it can be heard. Readers will want to rewind to hear it over and over again, just as they will want to read and reread this book that is filled with so much empathy. It is the Camino Real of biographies.”

Margaret Bradham Thornton, author of Tennessee Williams: Notebooks.


“Gene Smith’s Sink is a story of well-known photographer. It tells a lot about his working life and it tells a lot about his personal life. But what it tells best are things much more complicated. There are many revelations by which I saw a glimpse of what it is like to be a real photographer.”

Hiroshi Watanabe, photographer. Tokyo.