New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

W. Eugene Smith
The Jazz Loft Project
R. Wayne Parsons

W. Eugene Smith is best known for his penetrating, socially concerned photojournalistic projects from the 1940s through ‘70s such as “Country Doctor”, “Minamata” (focusing on environmental damage in Japan due to unregulated release of mercury from industrial processes), “Spanish Village”, and “Nurse Midwife” (which Smith considered his most important project). In 1957 he moved to a loft in a small industrial building at Sixth Avenue and 29th Street, which coincidentally happened to be a hangout of jazz-world luminaries. Smith quickly became enmeshed in this milieu, and from 1957 to ’65 exposed 1,447 rolls of film and made 4,000 hours of often surreptitious audio tape of life in the building.

From this voluminous material curators Sam Stephenson and Courtney Reid-Eaton have expertly selected more than 200 images and several hours of audio, supplemented by videos of and about Smith and the scene. Results are stupendous, of great interest to anyone interested in jazz, but, more importantly, to anyone and everyone who enjoys looking at masterful photographs.

Smith had everything needed for inclusion in the pantheon of photography: an unerring eye for what makes a good photo (composition was an especial strength, as is quickly apparent from this exhibition), finely-perfected technical skills with black and white processes (he is renowned in photo circles for his use of tricky bleaching techniques to emphasize what he wanted to express in his images), and monomaniacal dedication to his craft (he worked virtually round the clock for days, spurred on by only a few hours sleep and large quantities of alcohol and stimulants).

Presented in this show are vintage exhibition prints as well as a larger number of smaller post-card size work prints, most never exhibited before. (But to evaluate these smaller images as merely work prints is misleading, as they are uniformly superb in their own right and fully worthy of being exhibited.) We see portraits of jazzmen (Thelonious Monk appears in several), scenes of performing ensembles, and a few still life images that capture the feel of the place and of the music (a strong example is of a musician’s hand holding a vertically positioned trombone at rest with emphasis on the hand and mouth piece of the instrument).

But Smith’s efforts at his loft were not limited to jazz, as he took thousands of images from his fourth-floor window overlooking Sixth Avenue. Smith was not so much an innovator in street photography as an exceptionally accomplished practitioner. His compositional skills, coupled with use of a 400 mm telephoto lens, enabled him to create stunning images extracting visual order from the chaos of life on the streets. He used the space-collapsing quality of the telephoto lens to meld elements of street life into a whole where objects flow smoothly and effortlessly into each other in the picture plane. A favorite of mine is a simple image of a man crossing the street with lines and curves defined by the median mark on the pavement and a lamp pole, with three of the four corners anchored by cars.

There is so much excellent imagery in this exhibition that you’ll probably have difficulty choosing favorites –- fortunately, you don’t have to!

W. Eugene Smith
The Jazz Loft Project

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
40 Lincoln Center Plaza
UWS & Uptown         Map

212 870 1630

Wednesday, February 17 to
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Hours: Tues, Weds, Fri, 11 to 6; Mon, Thurs, 12 to 8; Sat 10 to 6