Gene Smith's Sink: A Wide-Angle View

Eugene Smith was a larger-than-life figure of 20th-century photography, but biographer Sam Stephenson uncovers the small intricacies of Smith's life in his compelling portrait, Gene Smith's Sink: A Wide-Angle View.

Stephenson approaches his subject by interviewing Smith's friends and associates--including famous figures like Thelonious Monk who hung out in "the isolated squalor" of Smith's New York loft--and by poring over Smith's letters and own writings. Stephenson includes Smith's pawnshop receipts, court summons and other sundry documents, developing a picture of an itinerant life and lending the biography an aesthetic of marginalia that serves its subject well. By using this "wide-angle view," Stephenson explains, he can get "a clearer picture of Smith by averting my focus slightly to the side of him, the way you can see stars in the sky clearer by doing the same thing."

What emerges is a portrait of Smith not so much in his prime--when he was taking iconic portraits for Life magazine midcentury--but in his later work, when his alcohol abuse, obsessive behavior and reclusive lifestyle led to more complex photography and a number of ambient sound recordings that demonstrated his pervasive need to capture his surroundings. "Not many people are truly able to understand beauty and pain and ugliness," says Smith's former assistant Tamas Janda. "Most people don't want to be reminded of their humanity, which is inherently painful and ugly. Gene sought that out."

In opening his aperture for this biography, Stephenson gives shape to the vagaries and fleeting enchantments of human life, which photography tries to hold still. Gene Smith's Sink is a haunting exploration of the photographic mind. --Scott Neuffer, writer, poet, editor of trampset

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