The German version of this essay has been published in the Jazzfest Berlin 2016 supplement [PDF, 1,7 MB].

Thelonious Monk and the Town Hall Band at the rehearsal in W. Eugene Smith’s Loft, Photo: W. Eugene Smith © Magnum Photos/Agentur Focus

Standing on the corner of 28th Street and Sixth Avenue, Steve Swallow paused for a moment, rested his double bass on the pavement and sniffed the air. It was daybreak in New York’s wholesale flower market and, as musicians and other night people drifted homewards, chrysanthemums were arriving from Florida, and carnations and roses from local farms in Long Island and New Jersey.

Steve Swallow loved those mornings when the air was full of the smell of fresh-cut flowers. Mingling with the early workforce, he was coming home from a special place and feeling fulfilled. He’d been jamming at a loft on Sixth Avenue, the home of W. Eugene Smith, doyen of documentary photographers, and a legendary rendezvous of musicians. From 1957 to 1965, this shabby building attracted some of the finest exponents of jazz. For anyone who was hip, being there was fun and a privilege, and at the turn of the 1960s, Swallow was one of the in-crowd.

When Eugene Smith moved into the five-storey walk-up, it alread had a history of occupancy by artists and musicians. One of these was the pianist, composer and arranger Hall Overton, with whom he shared the fourth floor. Overton was a man of many talents. He had studied with Darius Milhaud and at the Juilliard conservatory, and arranged the music for Thelonious Monk’s celebrated 1959 concert at New York’s Town Hall. Through this connection, Smith rubbed shoulders with the known and obscure of the jazz world, bliss for a serious music lover. Over the years the loft provided a welcoming space for players drawn to the after-hours culture. It united musicians of several eras and traditions: older schools were represented by the trumpeters Buck Clayton and Dick Carey, the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell and the trombonist Vic Dickenson, and newer ones by the likes of Art Farmer, Jimmy Giuffre, Zoot Sims, Elvin Jones, Jim Hall, Henry Grimes and Eric Dolphy. Eventually Albert Ayler and Don Cherry joined this fluid assembly.

Eugene Smith, who had made his reputation while on the staff of “Life” magazine, is a key figure in documentary photography. He pioneered the photo-essay form, in which he used several images of an individual to build up a sense of their essence. John Szarkowski, the director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, described his concept in 1965, with reference to the story “Life Visits a Country Doctor”: “[His] photographs […] dealt not simply with what the doctor did, but in the profoundest sense with who he was”. Smith’s sensitivity was unquestionable, yet history has somewhat overlooked him in favour of Henri Cartier-Bresson and later exponents of reportage such as Don McCullin and Sebastião Salgado. But, as most other practitioners are aware, his approach to documentary photography has been hugely influential. Sam Stephenson’s 2009 book, “The Jazz Loft”, and now a new film directed by Sara Fishko, make the nature of that debt a little clearer.

I first became aware of Smith’s connection with jazz in the early 1960s, when “Down Beat”, the US jazz magazine, published a feature on Overton’s rehearsals with Monk. In the accompanying images of them at work in the loft, I noticed two floodlights aimed at the ceiling, the intention of which was to spread indirect illumination right across the room and enhance the available light, rather than resort to flash. As a photographer myself, I recognised a technique that only a sensitive operator would employ. But it was the photographer’s credit that surprised me. I was already aware of Eugene Smith’s work; until then, however, I had never associated him with music. To this day he remains what we might term “a photographer’s photographer”, although many people know at least one of his works, perhaps without knowing who took it. That famous shot, titled “The Walk to Paradise Garden”, shows his two small children walking hand in hand through a woodland space and into the light. This optimistic shot was taken at a dramatic point in Smith’s life, while he was recovering from a head wound suffered during the US forces’ amphibious landings on the island of Okinawa during his period as a war photographer in the spring of 1945. It was a statement of his return to activity. His “Spanish Village” series is also well known, as is a later image from Minimata, a pietà of a Japanese mother bathing her brain-damaged child, a victim of mercury poisoning and big business.

At the loft, Smith photographed all comers. Among them were many musicians, but he was never what might be called a “jazz photographer”. Still, the black and white portrait of Monk on the cover of one of the great pianist’s Columbia albums – titled just “Monk” – in 1964 did something to put jazz fans on notice of his gifts. Smith shot Monk in a suit and a fedora, leaning back, with a trail of smoke coming from his cigarette. Nothing unusual about that, you might think: he’s a jazzman. But look again. There’s nothing stage-managed about that smoke. Smith saw it not as an effect but as a part of the musician. The cigarette and the hat are part of who Monk was, and thus a part of his music. When Smith printed the image, he used his considerable darkroom technique to ensure an implicit understanding of this on the part of the viewer.

Smith revelled in the company of musicians and artists, and felt comfortable among outsiders. For several years, while he was working on a major project devoted to documenting the city of Pittsburgh, the New York loft became a late-night haunt of artists, poets and hustlers as well as musicians. Some of the musicians were big names – Charles Mingus, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk and Roy Haynes, as well as Monk – but Cartier-Bresson and other photographers, including Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, were among the visitors, as were Salvador Dalí, Anaïs Nin and Norman Mailer. Hanging out, playing or listening to music, people went to Gene Smith’s pad to drink, smoke and get high, to crash and sometimes to stay. Before she married John Coltrane, the pianist Alice McLeod lived on the fifth floor. The tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson was another tenant. When Smith travelled to Japan to cover the Minimata mercury-poisoning story, he gave Ornette Coleman his key so that the saxophonist could go there at nights and play the piano.

Jazz Loft Tape Boxes © Matthew Thompson

In “The Jazz Loft”, Sam Stephenson suggests that as Smith’s ambtions for the ambitious Pittsburgh project disintegrated, he found solace in the world of the loft. He kept his cameras set up at the window, ready to document the street outside at all hours in every season, shooting 1,447 rolls of film, inside and outside, and making more than 40,000 photographs. The loft consumed more film than any of his other projects. When he wired the place for sound, placing microphones at strategic points he captured random conversations and radio broadcasts of plays and talks as well as the music being played during jam sessions and more formal rehearals. Stephenson catalogued a total of 1,740 reel-to-reel tapes in Smith’s archive, notated with the names of 129 jazz musicians.

Smith was one of those brave hearts who walked in where others feared to tread, with a legend that goes beyond the work itself. He had a vision for every assignment and, accordingly, sought to control how his photographs were used. As a result his professional life was filled with conflict, most notably with the magazine picture editors who refused to allow him that control (he left “Life”, for example, after a disagreement over the way his photographs of Albert Schweitzer were used). His stand was much admired by his peers, most of whom quietly bemoaned their fate while settling for the status quo.

When it came to technical matters, he was a dedicated craftsman who could spend days on end over the struggle to achieve the perfect print. Indeed, sometimes he stayed in his darkroom for so long that he would be found printing while watching a baseball match on the television – with a red filter over the TV screen.

Smith shared several characteristics with Roy DeCarava, another American great. DeCarava, too, was known for his photographs of musicians, although neither had them as his primary subject. For both men, their interest in music was what led them to photograph its practitioners. But, unlike the pragmatic DeCarava, Smith was a romantic, an impulsive artist who lived for the moment and spent himself and his resouces in the pursuit of his desires. In a situation paralleling the life of Charlie Parker, his equipment – his cameras and his lenses – was often to be found in a pawn shop as he struggled to find the wherewithal to buy his daily bread, never mind a supply of film.

Both Smith and DeCarava saw the musicians as sons and daughters of toil. This photographic tradition began in the United States before the First World War with the social reformer Lewis Hine, who sought to dignify the common people through his images. It continues to surface elsewhere in jazz photography, through individuals such as W. Patrick Hinely and Guy Le Querrec.

In an advertisement extolling the virtues of a certain brand of camera, Smith pictured his young daughter Juanita at the loft, balancing on the bannisters in a crook of the stairs. Most photographers would have moved in for a close-up. But, as the caption stated, “Eugene Smith took two steps backwards and showed us her life.” Backwards, forwards, sideways: he always knew how many steps to take.

A free screening of the film “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith” will take place at Haus der Berliner Festspiele Festspiele at 4 November 2016, 16:00.

Jazzfest Berlin 2016 takes place from 1 to 6 November, 2016.