Sam Stephenson is a judge for PEN America‘s 2019 literary prize in biography. He has studied the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith since January 1997, following his footsteps in twenty-six states and Japan and the Pacific, conducting more than five hundred oral history interviews. Gene Smith’s Sink (published August, 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is the culmination of twenty years of work, often looking around the subject, distilled to spare essentials.
Stephenson’s next manuscript has a working title of Which Direction Home and will be completed in Fall 2018. It’s a further exploration of his writing and documentary style of looking rigorously off-center of a subject, called “wide-angle view” in the subtitle of Gene Smith’s Sink, and called “lyric research” by poet Ross Gay. (More information on Which Direction Home is below).
A new oral history interview with Stephenson was made public on the Outspoken Podcast in January 2018 by Cal. St. Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History. This interview contains unique discussion of his childhood and youth in coastal Washington, N.C. and his new manuscript.
Stephenson’s first Smith book, Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project was published by W.W. Norton 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 (JLP).
JLP won a 2010 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award,and a 2010 Innovative Use of Archives Award from the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York. For a dozen years Stephenson conceived and operated The Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University.
But Smith is not Stephenson’s only subject. In 2015 he won the ASCAP Deems Taylor / Virgil Thomson Prize for his documentary essay on John Coltrane’s first biographer, Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins, for The Paris Review, An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane.
Also in 2015, he co-authored Big, Bent Ears: A Serial in Documentary Uncertainty, a joint venture between The Paris Review and Stephenson’s Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials based in Durham, N.C. Big, Bent Ears was The Paris Review’s first foray into mixed media on this scale.
Periodicals that have published his work unrelated to Smith, or barely related, include The 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 tenures 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, and was a producer on Fishko’s 2016 film, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith. He has been featured on NPR several times, the Leonard Lopate Show, NBC’s Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning, CNN, and the BBC.
Stephenson was the 2012-13 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Professor of Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, the culmination of fifteen years at CDS.
In April 2013 Stephenson formed the Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, a new platform from which to explore and experiment with 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. Photographers included Kate Joyce, Leah Sobsey, Alec Soth, Hank Willis Thomas, and Hiroshi Watanabe.
Photographs of Sam on this page by Kate Joyce.
Which Direction Home, the working title of a nearly finished manuscript elaborating on Stephenson’s manner of writing and documentary work, called “Wide-Angle View” in the subtitle of his 2017 book, Gene Smith’s Sink, and called “lyric research” by poet Ross Gay. Which Direction Home contains research and writing about the musicians Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Joe Henry, the poets Betty Adcock and Claudia Emerson, writers John Berger and Amy Hempel and Joseph Mitchell, theorists Bruno Latour and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, the Tennessee Williams scholar Margaret Bradham Thornton, the baseball coach Charlie Montoyo, along with other myriad topics such as late night sports radio and the 1995 tour in which Radiohead opened for REM. The manuscript blends autobiography with various types of documentary work in archives, oral histories, and field observations.
Details on collaborative work at Rock Fish Stew’s website.
A TV series pilot set in 1959 in a Manhattan loft building which is an after-hours haunt of jazz musicians, most struggling.
“Bing & Ruth and Amy & David.” Paris Review Daily. October 19, 2017.
“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).
“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,” Paris Review Daily (12/20/10).
Whitney Balliett’s Studio (jazzloftproject.org. 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)
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)
Powells.com 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.