In a wildly digressive, unconventional biography, documentarian Stephenson (The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965, 2009, etc.) reports on 20 years researching the life of W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978).
In 1977, when Smith was evicted from his Manhattan loft, he saw 22 tons of material loaded onto a truck bound for the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. Besides photographs, notebooks, and mounds of scrap paper, the shipment included 1,740 reels of tape, recordings of the many artists, musicians, drug addicts, pimps, and prostitutes who visited Smith, and “absurd oddities such as eight continuous hours of random loft sounds” and “myriad sounds from TV and radio.” Those tapes prodded Stephenson to interview everyone he could track down, men and women now in their 70s and 80s, who had any connection, however peripheral, with Smith. A portrait emerges of a difficult, combative, selfish man, “a bipolar pack rat” addicted to alcohol and assorted drugs. “He drank a fifth of scotch and ate countless amphetamines every day,” Stephenson reports. One psychiatrist deemed Smith’s uncontrollable obsessions to be “very costly, very time consuming and draining for him and others around him.” Famous in the 1940s and ’50s for photographs produced for Life, Smith gave up that connection, left his wife and children destitute, and moved to Manhattan. Suffering from health problems, living in a filthy loft, and struggling financially, he nevertheless always found someone to rescue him, either with money or by managing the mess of his life. Stephenson includes capsule biographies of all his interviewees, along with overly long excerpts from the interviews. Toward the end of his research, in Japan, where Smith took his famous photograph of a mother and her deformed child in Minamata, Stephenson suddenly realized, with some embarrassment, the “absurd degree” to which he “was following Smith’s footsteps.” Readers may draw that conclusion quite early in the narrative.
An obsessive reporter tracks an obsessive artist in a book for die-hard Smith fans.