By any measure, W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) was one of the giants of the art of photojournalism. He is credited with being the originator of the “photo essay” concept, beginning in 1948 with a series about a country doctor in Colorado and culminating with the heartrending Minamata (1975), a book documenting the horrific effects of mercury poisoning on the residents of a fishing town in Japan. He spent many years working for Life magazine, producing iconic images of US Marines and Japanese prisoners-of-war in the Pacific Islands during World War II, impoverished Welsh miners during the 1950 election in the UK, Spanish villagers under the Franco regime and a series depicting Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s clinic in Gabon. The much-replicated image that closes the famous 1955 international photo exhibition and book The Family of Man is “The Walk to Paradise Garden,” Smith’s shot of two small children emerging hand-in-hand from a dark wood, silhouetted against brilliant sunlight.
The photographer also had Hudson Valley connections. After his death, his son, K. Patrick Smith, donated 25 of his father’s photographs to Dutchess Community College in honor of his mother, Carmen Smith Wood, Smith’s first wife and a 1979 DCC graduate. The works are displayed in the Martha Reifler Myers Gallery on the DCC campus in Poughkeepsie. The Crum Elbow Cemetery in Hyde Park is the final resting place of W. Eugene Smith’s cremains.
Now, another of Smith’s legacies has been brought to light, thanks to the efforts of WNYC radio culture guru Sara Fishko: a documentary film revealing the exhaustive records, both visual and audio, that the photographer compiled while living next door to a loft at 821 Sixth Avenue in Manhattan’s Flower District from 1957 and 1965. That loft was a Mecca for the jazz artists of the era, who would meet there to jam and rehearse. Smith installed microphones throughout the building, even in the stairwells, capturing off-the-cuff conversations between legendary artists along with their musical collaborations. In those seven years, he collected an astonishing 4,000 hours of reel-to-reel audiotape and nearly 40,000 photographs.
Besides having full access to the collection, Fishko recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with surviving habitués of the gathering place. The resulting film, The Jazz Loft according to W. Eugene Smith, includes portraits of composer/arranger Hall Overton – a resident of the loft – and the protean saxophonist Zoot Sims. The rise and fall of Ronnie Free, a jazz drummer from the South whose career succumbed to heavy drug use, is largely related by Free himself. Thelonious Monk rehearses for his celebrated 1959 big-band concert at Town Hall. The ’50s give way to the ’60s; Smith begins to record his own phone calls and visits from the local police; the world changes – and Smith gets evicted. “The bohemian paradise of this environment had a dark side, and the movie doesn’t give it short shrift. Nevertheless, a genuine exhilaration holds throughout,” wrote New York Times reviewer Glenn Kenny.
The Jazz Loft according to W. Eugene Smith will be the 24th film to be presented in the Rosendale Theatre’s ongoing curated Music Fan Film Series, with screenings at 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, January 10 and 11. Tickets cost $7 general admission, $5 for Rosendale Theatre Collective members. Located at 408 Main Street (Route 213) in Rosendale, the Rosendale Theatre is handicapped-accessible and offers ample parking in the rear. For more info, call (845) 658-8989 or visit www.rosendaletheatre.org.
The Jazz Loft according to W. Eugene Smith screenings, Tuesday/Wednesday, January 10/11, 7:15 p.m., $7/$5, Rosendale Theatre, 408 Main Street, Rosendale; (845) 658-8989, www.rosendaletheatre.org.