In January 1955, celebrated photographer W. Eugene Smith quit his longtime job at Life magazine. In search of greater freedom and artistic license, he accepted a three-week freelance assignment in Pittsburgh that turned into a four-year obsession and, in the end, remained unfinished.
In 1957, he 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 (between 28th and 29th streets) in New York City’s wholesale flower district. The building 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 epic Pittsburgh project broke down, Smith found solace in the chaotic, somnambulistic world of the loft and its artists.
The exhibition evokes the jazz loft through more than 200 images, several hours of audio, and 16mm film footage of Smith working in the loft. Setting the scene is Smith’s gritty photographs of the loft and his pictures of the flower district below his fourth-floor loft window. Viewed alongside his master prints, Smith’s 5x7-inch work prints further indicate the breadth and depth of the loft story. Listening stations give access to remastered selections from Smith’s reel-to-reel tapes, which caught everything from rousing jam sessions to historic radio and TV broadcasts, loft conversations, and street noise. Concerts and other programming will supplement the exhibition experience.