W. EUGENE SMITH{0}

In January 1955 W. Eugene Smith, a celebrated photographer at Life magazine whose quarrels with his editors were legendary, quit his longtime well-paying job at the magazine. He was thirty-six. He was ambitious, quixotic, in search of greater freedom and artistic license. He turned his attention to a freelance assignment in Pittsburgh, a three-week job that turned into a four-year obsession and in the end, remained unfinished. In a letter to Ansel Adams, Smith described it as a “debacle” and an “embarrassment.” In 1957, Smith moved out of the home he shared with his wife and four children in Croton-on-Hudson, New York and into a dilapidated, five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City’s wholesale flower district. 821 Sixth Avenue (between Twenty-eighth and Twenty-ninth streets) was a late-night haunt of musicians, including some of the biggest names in jazz—Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk among them—and countless fascinating, underground characters. As his ambitions broke down for the epic Pittsburgh project, Smith found solace in the chaotic, somnambulistic world of the loft. He turned his documentary impulses away from Pittsburgh and toward his offbeat new surroundings. From 1957 to 1965, Smith exposed 1,447 rolls of film at the loft, making roughly 40,000 pictures, the largest body of work in his career.  He photographed the nocturnal jazz scene as well as life on the streets of the flower district, as seen from his fourth-floor window. He wired the building like a surreptitious recording studio and made 1,740 reels (4,500 hours) of stereo and mono audiotapes, capturing several hundred musicians, among them Thelonious Monk, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, and Paul Bley. He also recorded underground figures such as pianists Eddie Costa and Sonny Clark, drummers Ronnie Free and Edgar Bateman, saxophonist Lin Halliday, bassist Henry Grimes, and multi-instrumentalist Eddie Listengart. Also dropping by the nocturnal scene were the likes of Doris Duke, Norman Mailer, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Salvador Dalí, as well as pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, drug dealers, thieves, cops, photography students, building inspectors, and others.