I was out of the country teaching photojournalism in southeast Asia when this series aired on WNYC and in edited form on NPR nationally.
Smith has long been one of my heroes for his polishing of the photographic essay form, starting with his 1948 Country Doctor essay and on to Minamata, one of the most powerful pieces of environmental journalism ever done.
Between the two he beautifully photographed Dr. Albert Schweitzer, nurse-midwife Maude Callen, a village in fascist Spain, Haitian insane asylums and many others.
Between that famous work for Life magazine and the stunning Minamata book, he lost himself, barely able to leave a dingy loft on New York’s Sixth Ave.
He continued to photograph — a personal and introverted essay shot entirely through his fractured window, “As From My Window I Sometimes Watch,” and thousands of images of the jazz musicians, such as Thelonious Monk, who came and went through the tenement at all hours of the day and night.
He also printed and collected obsessively, and tried to edit and reexamine his massive, beautiful and improvisational body of work from Pittsburgh.
At the same time, new technologies appeared that appealed both to Smith’s documentary impulses and to his undying interest in music — the tape recorder.
Late last year, Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and WNYC produced an extensive audio documentary and book on The Jazz Loft where Smith lived. The program’s dual focus on Smith and the jazz musicians who jammed there is only possible thanks to Smith’s recorder, thousands of tapes, and his obsessive nature.
An exhibition of images will open at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on February 17 and run through May 22, 2010. It will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center, Duke University and the University of Arizona where Smith’s archive resides.
If Smith captures your imagination, admiration and sometimes train-wreck fascination the way he does with me, see the exhibition. Also seek out the 1989 docudrama “Photography Made Difficult,” and the 2003 book on his three-year, 11,000-frame Pittsburgh project.