Monday, February 23, 2009

The Loft

There have been two major articles in the NY Times about the famous Jazz Loft of 821 Sixth Avenue in New York. The most recent was in last Sunday’s Times and the first in 2005. I read that first one almost four years ago while riding the morning train en route to work in the city. It left me aching with an addictive sensation. From out of the ether, I’d come upon something of which I desperately wanted to learn more

W. Eugene Smith is considered a pioneer of the photo essay. He was employed by Life magazine to cover the Pacific theatre during WWII, during which he was injured in combat. After the war, he quit conventional photojournalism and had a nervous breakdown. He emerged from this phase, divorced and removed from his suburban life. He eventually took up residency in a loft at 821 Sixth Avenue – the Jazz Loft. There he shared the fourth floor with musician Hall Overton. In the years 1959 through 1965, he spent an immense amount of time and energy recording and photographing all that went on as musicians and artists came and went. Every floor and every stairway had microphones positioned. Allegedly there are 3,000 hours of recordings.

Currently, Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies is undergoing the project of disseminating and documenting this trove. Last weekend’s Times article appears to be a status update on the project but left me woefully unsatisfied. Why can we not hear samples from the tapes? Why are we not able to see images from the nearly 40,000 photographs Smith captured?

I’m fascinated by Smith. In as much as I want to see the world of Jazz through his perspective in that unique setting, I am more drawn to see what his obsessive documenting captured – the street scenes, the recordings he made of late night radio, the conversations among people on the street and amid the halls. What a fantastic time capsule.

Allegedly, this year, there will be a book and a travelling exhibit. Allegedly.

I’m dying to experience some of this material…but when?
(photograph of W. Eugene Smith from NY Times / Harold Feinstein)

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