Thursday, July 7, 2011

Major Photography Shows In but Only Tangentially Of The South, Part One -- The Jazz Loft Project

Duke University's Nasher Museum is hosting a splendid show of photographs at the moment by the distinguished mid-20th-century photographer W. Eugene Smith called The Jazz Loft Project: W. Eugene Smith in New York City, 1957-1965.

The images in this show are classic '50s-60s black and white shots of street scenes in NYC's flower district and of jazz musicians, notably Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, Charlie Mingus, Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, and others who were in the process of transforming the 40s big band jazz of Ellington and Basie into the small group be-bop and post-bop styles on which contemporary mainstream jazz is based.

These musicians shared a dilapidated five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue with Smith, who had left his job with Life Magazine in the mid-1950's and moved into the building while he pursued his Pittsburgh project, a freelance documentary job that turned into a four-year obsession that Smith was never able to finish. 

Smith was obsessive about everything he did. While living in the building at 821 Sixth Avenue, he shot 1,447 rolls of film, over 40,000 photographs, the largest body of work in his career, making some of the iconic portraits of the jazz musicians with whom he shared the space, as well as a rich body of street photographs, chiefly of life on the streets of the flower district, as seen from his fourth-floor window. 

Smith also turned the building into a recording studio by setting up reel-to-reel tape recorders and made 1,740 reels (4,000 hours) of stereo and mono audiotapes, capturing more than 300 musicians rehearsing, composing, and planning their careers. 

In addition to the photographs of the musicians and the NYC street scenes, Smith also documented visits to the Jazz Loft by a host of other notables, including Norman Mailer, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Salvidor Dali, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, photography students, local cops, building inspectors and marijuana dealers.

When Smith died, this vast body of work was sent to the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography with the rest of Smith's archive, where it sat in obscurity until it came to the attention of the photographic historian Sam Stephenson, a member of the staff at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies.  

Stevenson stumbled across this material while working on a project to make something of the thousands of images Smith made in Pittsburgh. That effort resulted in the book Dream Street: W. Eugeme Smith's Pittsburgh Project 1955-1958, after which Stevenson turned to the Jazz Loft material, which has led to its own book, and to a website, and to a radio show, and to this exhibition.
This show features original prints of many of Smith's images, which remind us that Smith was a wizard in the darkroom as well as with the camera.  It also includes excerpts from some of the recordings.

After the show closes in Durham later this month, it is off to the Museum of Photographic Arts
 in San Diego and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.  

Southern connections? After all, Smith was from Kansas. Well, the Center for Documentary Studies is in the South, Sam Stevenson is on its staff,  the exhibit is at the Nasher, which is also in the South, jazz music is rooted in the African-American culture of the South, and a number of the musicians seen or heard in this material were Southerners, including Thelonious Monk, who was born in Rocky Mount, NC.

This is a must-see show. Get there, or get the book, or both.

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