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Writer And Documentarian Sam Stephenson

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DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm David Brent Johnson. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars, writers and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is writer Sam Stephenson, whose book, Gene Smith's Sink, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2017.


He is a 2019 Guggenheim fellow. He also authored The Jazz Loft Project for Alfred A. Knopf in 2009 and Dream Street for W.W. Norton in 2001. He has written for The New York Times, The Paris Review, Tin House, the Oxford American, and others. A former fellow of the NEH, two-time ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thompson Prize winner and Lehmann Brady visiting joint chair professor in documentary studies and American studies at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill. He is a native of Washington, N.C., and now lives with his family in Bloomington, Indiana. Sam Stephenson, thanks so much for joining us on Profiles.

SAM STEPHENSON: Thank you, David.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: I wanted to start by asking about something that you said in a 2017 Paris Review interview that you did. You said that, as a biographer, it's difficult to get a picture of someone's childhood. It's the hardest thing a biographer has to do. Why is that?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, I think it's mostly because it's the least documented part of your life. It's also perhaps the most falsely documented, in some ways. In other words, most family photographs - which are what might survive for any of us - are usually spectacular occasions - you know, vacations, holidays, birthdays, that kind of thing. It's usually - like, the normal - what happens the other 350 days of the year is not documented. Also, usually you're asked to smile and say cheese and you don't smile and say cheese all day long, you know? So, it's just really hard to get at. And also, if you believe Sigmund Freud and people like him - I think he explicitly wrote about this - that the psychiatric being is fully formed at age 5 - by age 5. That doesn't mean you can't have trauma at age 10, 11 or 25, you know, that changes things, that causes new neural pathways to develop and things like that, but the core psychiatric being is pretty well established by age 5. That means those first five years are really important, you know? And how - for one thing, the person's not going to remember it that well. What they do remember could be really different than what a sibling or a parent remembers. So, it's just a real puzzle to put together a view of what a child looks like. And then if you add that, you know, some biographical subjects are 200 years long gone, you know? That makes it even harder. That's why most biographies, by page 30, they're already 25 years old, you know? That's not an accurate depiction of what actually happens and the ramifications and reverberations and so much. And it's not only true with a biographical subject, it's true of ourselves. You know, if you can't really get yourself right - which is very difficult, I've spent a lot of time trying - then how can you get somebody else right?

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Well, that's what I want to ask you now for, a picture of your childhood. You were born in North Carolina in 1966 and you grew up there. What was your childhood like? How do you think it affected your later interests and pursuits?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, that's a great question. I read in the New Yorker magazine a few years ago, John McPhee - the writer who I admire a great deal - he had a piece in which he said that - and he's at a pretty advanced stage in his career. I think he's in his 70s, if not 80s now - he said that he once went through a list of everything he'd ever written, all the different pieces. It was like hundreds of pieces. And he marked a star beside each one the subject of which came from something that he was passionate about before he was 18 years old. So almost everything he did for his whole life was something he cared about before he was 18. So, this kind of overlaps with your first question. It's like getting at the first 18 years of somebody's life is so important. So, what does mine look like? I mean, I'm the same way. I mean, I'm not nearly - I'm probably half as old as McPhee or a little more than half, so I don't have the prolific number of things I've done yet. But everything I'm doing, I can recognize a lot of music stuff. I mean, I grew up on a - you know, we didn't think it was rural back then. In fact, our town of 10,000 people was the city for some people. Washington, N.C., 10,000 people in rural coastal North Carolina. There was a huge body of brackish water right there. Music was very important to me. I think my parents once told me that one of the first things I asked for when I was old enough to ask for something as a gift was a radio. And that radio was in our bathroom for decades. And I used to listen to - you know, back then it was mostly top 40 stuff that we could hear back in the '70s and early '80s. But after dark, I could pick up - on the AM radio I could pick up stations as far as New York and St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington. And I would just lay in bed and scroll the dial on the AM and just listen to these weird talk shows and sports. So, I think all that informed what I do in being kind of a documentarian - a writer that is paying attention to things. I'd never say I'm, like, a music writer or a music documentarian, but it's - like, most of the stuff I do ends up being about music.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: There's a music connection in some way or another.

SAM STEPHENSON: There - in some level, yeah.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What else were you passionate about as a kid?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, I was really into sports, both as a player and consumer.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What did you play?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, baseball ended up being my main thing, but I actually had a cup of coffee on the baseball team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What position did you play for them?



SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. But in high school you play everything, you know? I could throw pretty hard, so anybody that could throw hard was targeted as a pitcher.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So, you were in college - you said you had a cup of coffee with the baseball team. What were you majoring in in college? What did you think, at that point in your life, that you might find yourself doing in your professional life?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well when I was a freshman, we had this thing called the freshman record, which had everybody - all the freshmen in the school in one book and it had your picture and you had to list what you thought your major was going to be. And I put pre-med because my father had been a physician - is a physician. And I went to the first chemistry class that first semester freshman year and I just looked at the syllabus. I didn't even stay, I just looked at the syllabus and I walked out. And...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You just knew, right?

SAM STEPHENSON: ...There's no way I could do that. I mean, there's just no way. And that's held true. I mean, I just - I ended up majoring in economics which was pretty hard too, but not as hard as chemistry. But I didn't know. I really didn't know. I mean, I was probably - my career path - I got a job right out of college with my economics background and I'd had two really good summer jobs while I was in college in New York City and in London that kind of looked good on my resume, so I was able to parlay that into a corporate banking job. That was my first job right out of college. I graduated and then a month later I was putting on a suit and working at a bank. And I realized pretty quickly - almost as quickly as the chemistry class - that I wasn't really a fit there.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So, this would have been around the very end of the '80s, I'm assuming.

SAM STEPHENSON: Yes, I finished college in '89, yeah.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So, you realized that the corporate banking life was not for you. What did you end up spending the next several years doing?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well I always had an interest in - what drew me to economics was the puzzle of value and just why are certain things valued at one level and certain other things were valued at a different level. And economics seemed like a way to try to get at that. And I always did well in the theory type economics classes where you get in there and talk about real abstract things. And I used to always say - I mean, people have written this too, I didn't make it up. But the invisible hand of the market - you know, they say you arrive at a price by the movement of an invisible hand. I mean, that's so, like, religious, you know? And to this day, I mean, I - price values are really mysterious. I mean, we saw in 2008 - I mean the smartest economists in the world didn't know what was going to happen. There were some maybe. But if you go to an auction, you can see how the price of something is arrived at. It's by people demanding more. You know, they're willing to pay more. So that's very explicit, but that's not how it happens in the bigger world. And so, the prices are very mysterious, and even the most sophisticated economics textbooks talk about the movement of the invisible hand. I mean, that's like there's some godlike figure or some godlike force moving the price, the - you know, the laws of supply and demand. So that always really puzzled me. And I think, growing up in my background in eastern North Carolina was about 50% white and 50% black, and my father had been the head of the school board during integration back then. My family - and they still are and we still are huge proponents of the public schools. And, you know, I'm - wanted to always do that and I have a four-year-old kid and I'm pretty sure that he will do that when he's old enough. And I just was puzzled by the differences and people's backgrounds - how some people had a lot of money, some people had almost none, and how does that really happen? It was still, you know, another thing that's hard to explain. So, after I left banking, I went to Washington, D.C., to get involved in economic policy. And my first job was with a great organization called the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is a very progressive think tank. And then I got a job after that with a congressman from Wisconsin - democratic congressman from Wisconsin who was on the House Ways and Means Committee, and I was his Ways and Means Committee assistant. So, I got to see how that committee worked for two years - like, the inner workings of that. And then I tried to go to grad school in economics because my boss, Jim Moody from Wisconsin, had been an economist as well. He was a PhD economist. So, I tried that and I was back to the chemistry class. I just couldn't do the math - that kind of rigorous, disciplined, mathematical kind of thing is not who I am. It took me a long time - I remember I was - now I'm getting up into my mid to late 20s now, you know? And still wondering what I'm going to do.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What was it like to see the inner workings of the budgetary process or the congressional process? Was it, like, kind of a very bureaucratic or overwhelming thing to see? Or what was that like?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, it was both thrilling and probably depressing. Thrilling in that, you know, a 25-year-old kid from eastern North Carolina could actually have some impact, you know?

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You could say we'll put this money here, we won't put that money there, and...

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah, well, the members of Congress - you know, the saying they're an inch deep and 50 miles wide, you know, on everything. You know, you just can't know every issue. So, you have to rely on your staffers. The staffers aren't paid very much, so they have to hire a 25-year-old rather than somebody in the middle of their career, which is what needs to be done. Those people are all lobbyists, you know, because you make five times or 10 times more money. I mean, anything I want to say about it would probably be a cliché, but I loved it, actually. There are times that I think - my wife and I have been talking about politics a lot the last couple of years, and I do miss it on some level.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You know, it's interesting that you say that you were interested in economics and understanding the value of things because your later work - when you look at it superficially, all this research and everything you did might not seem connected at all, and yet you're digging through all these artifacts and kind of assigning values to them too and assigning values to things that maybe haven't been valued at all by previous researchers or historians. Or determining what's significant about this person's life and what isn't and what should we include that wasn't included before?

SAM STEPHENSON: I've been doing this now for like 20 years, and you're probably the first person that's ever said that. I usually have to point that out because people are like, how in the world did you go from economics and Capitol Hill to a dilapidated jazz loft in New York City? And you just nailed it. It is discovering things that aren't valued and digging into them and caring about them and paying attention to them, and that's what I'm drawn to on a wide variety of levels. And I don't know, clearly, why I'm drawn to that, but it is definitely a pattern.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: If you're just joining us on Profiles, our guest is Sam Stevenson, author of The Jazz Loft Project, Gene Smith's Sink, and Dream Street. He's also a 2019 Guggenheim fellow.

So after you traversed the younger years of your life and working in different fields, you ended up spending about 20 years researching and writing about, in one way or another, the life of W. Eugene Smith, who was a gifted and driven photographer who worked for Life magazine, undertook extensive studies of the city of Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s and an environmentally damaged area of Japan in the early 1970s, and he also inhabited what proved to be a significant artist loft building in late 1950s and early '60s Manhattan. How did that 20-year pursuit come about?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, when I was failing in graduate school in economics, I started working at a great independent bookstore in Raleigh, N.C., called Quail Ridge Books, and I ended up working there for about three years full-time. And this was a period when I didn't know what in the world I was going to do. You know, I'm in my late 20s now, I've done a lot of different things and nothing had really taken. And the bookstore - and I didn't know I was going to work this way - it really was my university. I had always been a reader since I was a little kid and I'd always been a writer. I wrote for the school papers and always did well in writing classes - classes that required writing. Classes that were multiple choice tests, I was baffled. Even - you know, when I moved here to Bloomington, I failed the driver's license test the first time because I just can't do multiple choice. You know, it's like, that's the hardest test I've ever had to take. It was impossible. So, I did well in writing - but I was always encouraged with the way of writing. So, I started working at this bookstore in Raleigh, N.C., and I started writing for the newsletter. And there were some really smart customers who actually read the newsletter. And I remember there was a member of the North Carolina Symphony - I'd written a piece about Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and politician. And he came in - this is a guy really respected, I saw in the store a lot, and I think he played violin. He came in and said, “I read your piece.” He said, “that piece could be published in a national publication.” And I was like, wow, you know, this is a guy that I really respect because of the books he bought. He bought really high-quality books and we always - we talked about them. So just little things like that started to happen to me at the bookstore, and it would take me really a long time to describe how I went from the bookstore - the short version is the novelist Doris Betts was reading there. She had a new book that came out called Souls Raised from The Dead, and she made a comment - she said there's a way to value things in our world that are different than what a CPA can count, and I just - I was enthralled by that line. And I wrote her a letter and she had sent me a postcard, and she was working at USC Chapel Hill at the time, and she said, “let's grab coffee.” So, I went and met her for coffee and she ended up pointing me towards the center for documentary studies at Duke. So, I wrote a letter to Robert Coles, who was the founder of the Center for Documentary Studies and a magazine called Double Take magazine that was published at CDS. And Coles - after I wrote him a letter, he called me, which floored me. And Double Take assigned me to review a book by a photographer named Camilla José Vergara. So, I went from working in a bookstore to publishing a piece next to one by Joyce Carol Oates in Double Take, and that was really what got me off the ground. Shortly after that, so I - I mean, this is - you know, there's so many tangents. But I was fascinated by the city of Pittsburgh, Penn., and still am. The other day, I was flying from New York to Indianapolis and it was a very clear day and we flew right over Pittsburgh, and I could look down from my window seat and just see that city and think about the history of the steel mills and the rivers and the coal and the immigration there - really, really dense immigration in the Pittsburgh area. So, I was interested in that. And in Raleigh, N.C., I stumbled upon a reference to W. Eugene Smith's massive photographic study of the city of Pittsburgh from the 1950s that he'd never finished. Smith was attempting, like, one of the most ambitious photographic projects in American history at that point and he never finished it.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: He was trying to document the whole city, right?

SAM STEPHENSON: The whole city, yeah.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: It started out as a magazine assignment, and then he ended up spending I think over a year there just taking pictures.

SAM STEPHENSON: That's right. Yeah. He'd been hired - Smith had been hired by civic leaders in the city of Pittsburgh who were putting together a book to commemorate the city's bicentennial, and they had 100 scripted photographs that they wanted him to make. You know, this bridge, this neighborhood - you know, 100 photographs. And they expected it to take three weeks, and he ended up staying there for almost four years and made 22,000 photographs. And then he never finished it. It was really unpublishable. So that was my first thing. So, for Double Take magazine, I told them about it and they were like, “wow, that sounds cool. Would you do a piece on it for us?” So, then I did a piece on W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh project that was published in 1998, and that was the first year of 20 years researching Smith.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Yeah. What happened to him in Pittsburgh? It does seem like it became, like, his white whale in a way.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: I mean, I know he had been this World War Two photographer - already was a renowned photographer, I believe had worked for Life magazine, had kids, had a family and a successful career. And then he goes to Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s and just goes down this artistic rabbit hole.

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. Well, he had quit Life right before he went to Pittsburgh - like two months before he went to Pittsburgh. And after a really successful career - he made a lot of money and was very, very well known, but he always battled the editors over control of his work. And so, he went to Pittsburgh on this freelance assignment after he quit the magazine and he was just kind of, like, unbridled, you know? He was only - I think he was 35 years old, so he was in his prime. He was very young when he was a combat photographer in World War Two and he'd already had a lot of experiences in his life, and everything just kind of exploded in Pittsburgh. And I think he would have done that anywhere he had gone at that point in his life. But we're lucky - he was lucky - we're lucky now that it was Pittsburgh because it was America's primary industrial city at its pinnacle in the mid-1950s before manufacturing declined and suburbanism really took over. So, it was really a poignant picture of industrial urban America.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: That ended up becoming the subject of your first book, Dream Street, that came out in 2001. You took quite a few of the photos from Smith's work in Pittsburgh and did some text to accompany them. And that came out. And Smith himself, after he left Pittsburgh, ends up going to Manhattan and living in this kind of decrepit loft building I think at 28th and Sixth Avenue - the building's still there today - that becomes this hub of artistic and cultural activity of both people that are now famous artistically - people like Thelonious Monk, Hal Overton, Steve Reich - all these people kind of passing through as well as tons of other people that are, to some extent, lost to the sands of time except for the work that you've done. And he stays there for I think about nine years and you ended up documenting all of that - putting out a book called The Jazz Loft Project that then was turned by WNYC into a 10-part radio series, there was a documentary film. I mean, it - a ton of material comes out about W. Gene Smith's years in the jazz loft and the people that were there with him from the late '50s into the mid '60s. How did all the work on that come about?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, while I was working on that Pittsburgh project at his archive in Arizona - the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, I learned about these 1,740 reels of tape.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Right. Because I should say, he documented everything as you came to find.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: I mean, he not only took tons of photographs because he was a photographer, but he also had tape recorders or microphones throughout the loft and was constantly taping what was going on in the loft - musical performances, people just talking, things he was listening to on the radio. I think it was more than 4,000 hours I think of tapes. And you kind of came across all this in his archive, right?

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. The tapes were still in the same boxes that they had been in since they were deposited there in 1978 when the archive was created. And the names on the tape boxes - Monk and - you named some of them, Thelonious Monk and others - really drew me to those tapes. Monk very specifically because he was from eastern North Carolina, and I'm from there. And just seeing Monk's name on all those tapes - I just - and that nobody had ever heard and that the University of Arizona had the rightful policy that you can't listen to them until you properly preserve them because they feared catastrophic loss during playback. So, then we had to raise a lot of money to transfer the tapes and listen to them for the first time, and we had a lot of success with grants. I mean, there was kind of a mysterious detective story that was alluring and we had some luck with federal grants and one particular family foundation from Chicago, or the Logan Family Foundation - Reva and David Logan Foundation gave a lot of money. But 4,000 hours of tape takes a lot of time just to listen to them one time.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: I would imagine, yeah.

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. I had one colleague - his name's Dan Partridge - who, for about seven or eight years, his job was to listen to those tapes.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Just to listen to tapes of Gene Smith sitting around in the loft and maybe Thelonious...

SAM STEPHENSON: Street noise.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: ...Street noise or radio shows. It seems amazing - a rare opportunity that you'd come across something from that era even although, you know, mediums had existed for - sound mediums had existed for some - because they were - but here you've got somebody who was constantly taking pictures, constantly recording things that are going on. Like, it seems like it was a chance for you to, as much as anybody could, recreate an actual ongoing artistic community life.

SAM STEPHENSON: Yes. You know, one of the things that drew me - once we started listening to the tapes, I started realizing that there was a lot of mediocrity on the tapes. Like, there's a lot of music that wasn't that good, frankly, even if it was by a great player.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Because it was just everyday life.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: It had - was never curated, yeah.

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. So, this kind of gets back to my childhood stories told by the pinnacles. And I think the story of jazz is told by the pinnacles. You don't get the practice and the false starts and - you rarely have access to that 50 years later, and I could tell that Smith had done that. He had documented that vast ocean of material that usually doesn't get documented, and that's just everyday life. And I used to say that, if these people were just throwing darts or shooting pool or playing cards, this would still be important. But the fact that some of them are really iconic jazz musicians, we're lucky that that's true. But I think I would have still done something - I don't know if I would've spent 20 years, but I would've done something with whatever it was. He documented what's normally not documented - the behind-the-scenes, the practice, the failed things, the arguments, you know, the fights, the drunk nights that just are really sloppy. You know, you don't normally get to hear those 50 years later. You know, somebody once wrote - after my book came out, somebody wrote in a classical music magazine, "Sam Stephenson likes bad music better than good music."


SAM STEPHENSON: And, I mean, that's not really wrong. I mean, I - you know, you just don't get to hear that 50 years later.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So, you had the Jazz Loft Project book where you had all these materials to work with, all this documentation. You went on to write a biography a few years later of Eugene Smith called "Gene Smith's Sink," and it's an unconventional biography in that you kind of take an indirect approach to how you write about him. You write almost as much about the people who passed through his life as you do about Smith himself. Why did you decide on that particular approach, especially when you had somebody who had documented so much of his own life?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, that was a hard one process for me because the book that I proposed to my publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was a traditional biography. It was going to be 500 pages, 125,000 words, and it was going to be chronological like most biographies. And I had the material to do that and I had a lot of the writing, but I just didn't love it. You know, I didn't love it. But there were parts of it I loved. And so, I went through my manuscript and put checkmarks beside the parts that I loved - I really loved - and then I threw out everything else. So, utility, in other words, was out the window. Utility was what I was bored with the writing - like, having to explain - and then, in 1940, he did this. And then, in 1941, he did this - having to fill in all those - connect those dots, you know, with material that I didn't really care about or I hadn't done enough research on - so I threw out everything I didn't love and I ended up with about 40-some pieces that were roughly 1,000 words to 2,000 words in length. And I had a - like, a card for each one and I taped them up on the wall and I had the name of each chapter, which I knew by heart, on the card. And I had all 40 of them up on the wall in my place in Durham, N.C.. And I just started looking at them and started imagining sequences, and that's how I arrived at what I did. So, it's not a conventional biography. It's very digressive and reflective and associative. And I've found that a lot of people are thrilled by that. Sadly, the people that were probably wanting that book the most are disappointed, and that's Smith nuts and photography nuts, you know, who want to know what lens was he using on that photograph that he made? And I have all that information, it's just like, I don't know. It's just not - I don't know. The question is what do I do with all that now? Because I have, like, in storage just all this information that I gathered over the years that's not in my book. So, I don't know...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You have archives about Eugene Smith's archives, right?

SAM STEPHENSON: ...Well, that's a good idea. Maybe that's what I do with that. I just dump all my stuff at his archive in Arizona.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: I'm David Brent Johnson and you're listening to Profiles. Our guest is writer Sam Stephenson, a 2019 Guggenheim fellow and author of Gene Smith's Sink, The Jazz Loft Project, and Dream Street, all of which connect in one way or another with the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith.

Gene Smith died in 1978, about 20 years before you first began to delve into his work in life. If you'd been able to meet him, what would you have asked him about?

SAM STEPHENSON: Why did he make all these tapes? Yeah, that's what I'm asking. Why did you make 4,500 hours of tapes in a New York loft?

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What do you think he might have said?

SAM STEPHENSON: I have no idea. I mean, I really don't know. There wasn't a logical outcome. Today, if you did that, you might be able to do something digitally. But these are all seven-inch reels of tape, you know, analog tape. I mean, what do you do with that? I really don't know. We ended up using it as the basis for, you know, my writing a radio series, as you mentioned, and documentary film. But that's still just scratching the surface of what he did.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: When your biography came out in 2017, you were finally able to kind of start closing the door on this 20-year chapter of your life. I wanted to ask you what that was like. I mean, I would think, in a certain way, it would be a huge relief. But I also wonder if there was a sort of like - well, what do I do now? You know, when a certain topic or person or personality has been occupying such a central place in your life for so long.

SAM STEPHENSON: It was more of a relief. And I think the style of the book that I chose, which is digressive and associative and reflective, helped me achieve contentment with ending that 20-year chapter. Because if I had tried to write a 500 or 800-page biography with every single thing that I'd learned in that book, the day after it was published I would learn something else that was not in it. So, in other words, you'd never finish that. You know, I could publish an 800-page biography of Eugene Smith and then another 500 pages 10 years later and then another 500 pages 10 years - you just never - it's never ending. So, I think the more - if I want to pat myself on the back, I would say more poetic sort of style helped me leave it alone. There are a few things out there in the world right now that are Smith-related that are happening and people have asked, like, don't you want to be involved in that? And I'm - I just - I'm pretty happy not being involved.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Well, you know, even while you were writing about Smith, you frequently had other irons in the fire. One thing that I find intriguing in looking over things that you were working on was the Bull City Summer Project, which ties into baseball. And you even I think started something called the Rockfish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials that was kind of related to that. It was, I believe, an attempt to sort of have a bunch of different people document a whole season of a baseball team?

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. In some ways, that idea started with Smith's documenting of the loft. And I thought - you know, and I love baseball and I - the Durham Bulls are a very important part of...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: That's a North Carolina team?

SAM STEPHENSON: ...North Carolina team that's...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: They're a minor league team?

SAM STEPHENSON: ...Yeah, Triple-A. And I thought, you know, Smith documented that building that there were a lot of interesting things going on inside of New York in the '50s and early '60s, why don't we document this building - baseball stadium here in Durham during the course of the season and we'll do the same thing he did? We won't worry so much about who wins or loses. You know, we're just going to get everyday things at the stadium. It could be in the concession stand or in the parking lot or batting practice. You know, it didn't have to be the actual game. Baseball has documented pretty well by itself - box scores and highlights and articles - so let's get some world class photographers in here who are not sports photographers and have them inhabit the stadium and see what they find. So that's really what we did. We were lucky to get some funding for that, so we were able to hire Alec Soth, a great photographer lives in Minnesota, Hank Willis Thomas, Hiroshi Watanabe, Kate Joyce, and a number of others who are not sports photographers at all. And we had a great team of writers too. And I'm still really proud of that project, and I didn't really do much for that except manage it, which was a lot. But I didn't do that much writing.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You were like the team manager.

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. And it was kind of a relief for me - after all these years of living in the past, it was kind of a relief to document something that's happening now instead of document something that happened 50 years ago.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What is it about baseball that has hooked you so much as a fan?

SAM STEPHENSON: You know, there's so many things that people - I mean, I always say, like, it's the one sport that doesn't have a clock - you know, although they're talking about changing that. But I think - you know, most sports - almost all of them - team sports are based on the concept of warfare, where you have your home and the other team has theirs and you're fighting over real estate. Almost all sports are like that - basketball, football, soccer are certainly like that. The goal is to beat the other team into submission and take their goal. Baseball is not like that. It's not a battle of real estate and the players are out there in odd places around the field. Something about that, I think, is really unique.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: You've always been a baseball fan. You've also always been a music fan as well. And you have a new project that's tied in your Guggenheim fellowship that deals with the rock band Jane's Addiction and, in a broader sense, the cultural scene of California in the 1980s. What is it about that particular band in that place in that era that captivated your interest in this new project?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, I started thinking about Jane's Addiction last year because of the midterm elections. And I saw Jane's Addiction play in November of 1990 in Chapel Hill, N.C.. It was one week after the Senate race of Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Which was a very polarizing Senate race.

SAM STEPHENSON: Very - yes. It was also, I think, like, the most nationally-covered Senate race that year. Harvey Gantt was an African-American architect and mayor of Charlotte and he was leading that race for most of the time, and then he lost at the end by like one or two points, and a lot of us were very disappointed in that. And there was all kinds of voter suppression things going on there. I mean, I know people that got mailings that said, “if you've moved in the last three years, you're ineligible to vote,” and things like that. So, a week after that race, I went to see Jane's Addiction play at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill and it just kind of blew my mind. I mean, this band - I'd listened to their records until that point, but there was a really diverse audience at that show - more diverse than just about any show I've been to since then. There's a lot of women at the show, which, for a band that played really loud, was unusual at the time. And I think the band was not - they didn't present the kind of image of a metal band at all, even though they were kind of a metal band.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: They seemed a little more androgynous to me. Perry Farrell, the lead singer, in particular seems more androgynous.

SAM STEPHENSON: They were. Yeah. I mean, they were - you know, I mean, the comparisons are like David Bowie, you know? But - anyway, I'd just been thinking about that time period and that band and what they achieved and how I think that band has kind of been lost to history in some ways. They're not given the kind of credit that they - they really opened the door for some bands that came after them, like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, by being very edgy and challenging and loud and also selling a lot of records. Nobody had really done that before. So anyway, I just had this kernel of an idea and I went to L.A. and spent 10 days late last year and just started doing some preliminary interviewing and I just found out that my memories are pretty accurate. I'm right and that, in L.A., what they did was, I mean, even more profoundly drawing together disparate groups that normally didn't overlap in L.A. at all, and they would come to their shows. I mean, there would be Latino, black, white, LGBT, punks, metalheads, Deadheads. I mean, there were, like, all these factions that were coming to their shows. And their shows were often in abandoned buildings in downtown L.A.. Back then, the clubs had this pay-for-play policy where you had - if you were going to play a show at the Troubadour, you had to bring a grand, you know, and give it to them. I mean, not only did they not pay you, you had to pay. And the Janes guys were like, there's no way, you know? And there were a lot of abandoned buildings in downtown L.A. because it was not a good time for downtown L.A.. And so, I don't know, they just got - suddenly I became - thinking about it, almost in terms of like Smith again, like, this is a portrait of a scene.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Yeah, it sounds like an '80s indie rock underground community version of The Jazz Loft in a way, maybe.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Maybe not all concentrated in one building, but more in one city.

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. When I came back from L.A. the first - that trip, I told my wife, Courtney, “you know, this could be a 10-year project if I can get the funding. Because there's just endless angles.” You know, Ronald Reagan was president. He was from California. And Reagan - Bush - a lot of the policies back then, they're slashing taxes and quadrupling defense spending, and the buildup to the Persian Gulf War was right in the Jane's Addiction prime of '90 - '91. So, there's a lot going on that is kind of a backdrop to this band. And also, it makes it timely today. I think it's easy to forget that Perot and Stockdale got 20% of the vote in 1992.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Ross Perot and Admiral Stockdale that ran as independents...

SAM STEPHENSON: Ran as independents.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: ...In '92 - 1992 presidential election.

SAM STEPHENSON: They got 20% of the vote or just under 20 - like, 19.5% of the vote or something like that running as independents, which was astounding. And they had pride in ignorance of policy. 20% of the vote. What we're dealing with now was very evident then.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So, do you see this turning into a book or a multimedia project or how do you see the work on California in the '80s and Jane's Addiction - what do you think will be the ultimate outcome of that work?

SAM STEPHENSON: I don't know, probably a book.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: In this case, a lot of the people are still alive, right?


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: As opposed to - I know you did talk to a lot of people who had passed through the loft, but also a lot of significant people from that time passed away.

SAM STEPHENSON: Yes. Yeah, this is an interesting project because two of the original four band members in Jane's Addiction are actually younger than me - one year younger. I mean, these guys are only like 50 now.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So, they're your - it's your generation really.

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. And they took really different paths. Like, none of the four guys ever considered going to college. So, it's kind of an interesting look at a different path than the one I took at the same time. But, you know, there are models for what I might do with the book. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces. John Savage's book on the Sex Pistols…

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: England's Dreaming.

SAM STEPHENSON: …England's Dreaming. Both of those books about the Sex Pistols and they both go widely into those times.


SAM STEPHENSON: And I think this could happen with that, but I don't know yet.


DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: This is Profiles on WFIU. I'm David Brent Johnson and I'm speaking with writer Sam Stephenson who is the author of several books that deal, in one way or another, with photographer W. Eugene Smith, and who is a Guggenheim fellow currently at work on, among other things, a project about the rock band Jane's Addiction and California in the 1980s.

All of this work has required you to go to a lot of different places, talk to a lot of different people. Have there ever been any physical places you never thought you'd find yourself in as a result of your research and work? Or sort of "wow, how did I end up here" moments?

SAM STEPHENSON: Definitely. Minamata, Japan - I went there in 2011 and I was following Eugene Smith's footsteps.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Is that where he went in the early 1970s to document some environmental damage?

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. He went there to document corporate dumping of mercury into the bay, which made its way into the drinking water and made its way into the bodies of citizens there. But the only fallout to that was the chemicals were metastasized in the wombs of pregnant women. And the women were fine, but the babies were born deformed and the government had kind of buried this. And Smith went there with the key partnership of his second wife at the time, Eileen, who was Japanese American, and she really made that project happen. Anyway, I went there and followed their footsteps in Minamata. In Minamata Japan I often say would be like someone from Japan coming here and going to Gulfport Mississippi or somewhere like that, some coastal place down in the South or some you know - it's very rural. And there are several chapters about that trip in my book Gene Smith’s Sink. And I'd love to go back there, actually. But there definitely were moments when I was there because it is - you know it is as foreign as you can get to someone like me being there because, I mean, it's possible for an American to go to Tokyo and speak English the whole time - if you stay in the right hotels, you know the tourist hotels and things like that. They're going to have staff that speak English. That wasn't my experience in Tokyo because, well, I wasn't staying in those kinds of hotels where - I was more in the Japanese business traveling hotels. But then when we especially got to Minamata there was no one speaking - I mean it was - I realized that I haven't had that experience very often of being in a place that is 100 percent foreign to me. I kind of would like to have that more. I went to Italy last year. That's not the same. Our languages have a route that is the same. And you can be there for two weeks and start picking up on some of the language, you know. That's not the same. And especially, I mean - that reading those symbols - I just - I wish that I could read the symbols, you know? That language is so fascinating.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: So those are geographical places, someplace like a rural area in Japan. You've also spent a lot of time digging into archives especially W. Gene Smith’s archives. What's it like to be in a place where so many materials of one person's life are gathered? Is there any kind of weird feeling or energy that you pick up on digging into archives?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well I love archives. I love libraries. I go to the library here in Bloomington almost every day the downtown public library which is a remarkable place, by the way. We take our son there. It's a stunningly great library. I don't know. I find myself at home in archives. And it might be the same reason why I enjoyed being in Minamata, Japan. It's like a different world. It's somebody else's world. And I've learned that I like that. So, the archives are thrilling to me. And Smith's archive was gigantic. It weighed twenty-two tons when it was...

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Twenty-two tons?

SAM STEPHENSON: Yes, forty-four thousand pounds when it was deposited at the University of Arizona.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Where do they keep it?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, I mean, you know, a lot of the weight was records and books which they got rid of, which was disappointing. But I understand. He had twenty-five thousand vinyl records. And that was a lot of weight. You know, those are heavy. But it's a really nice archive. And it's one of the leading photography archives in the country, if not the world. And so, they have a lot of space. But his archive is the biggest one there.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Is it just like an immense room that has like - the photographs are here and the tapes are there?

SAM STEPHENSON: That's right.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: And the records are...

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah, I mean, it's a huge building.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Has it all been catalogued?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, we catalogued the tapes. Yeah.


SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. I mean we're - you know what? We're actually lucky that they kept the tapes because the tapes had a really bad reputation among the photography world. The photography world thought that Smith had lost his mind, you know, and that he was using whatever resources he had to buy taping equipment and tapes. And he should have been using those resources to enhance what he was better at doing, which is making photographs. So, the tapes were seen as indulgent and kind of lunatic. And thank goodness they saved them.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: What's it like to encounter all of that extensive documentation? Is it ever depressing in a way? Is there ever - were there ever moments of sort of like giving you a sense of the futility of somebody apparently almost trying to just document every moment of his life?

SAM STEPHENSON: Well I think that the answer is yes. And I think that's why I arrived at the final form of my book. Just like I was saying earlier, there's just no way to get it all. Smith used to have the saying, “a true perfectionist would never begin,” because there's no way to be perfect, you know? And so, I think after all these years I've found a method and a style of working that I trust which is kind of following my passions, following what I love, following my hunches. Not everything works out. But it's the only way I can really work. And that's kind of thrilling to me, to work that way. And to be able to do it. I mean, I'm very fortunate because a lot of the grant proposals and things - the kind of deck is stacked against working in the manner I work because you have to tell people where you're going before you start. And I'm just not very good at that. I usually don't know.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: It's interesting to me that you know ultimately all this documentation Smith undertook wasn't really futile because you came along and you turned it into something. It would still be out there moldering in the archives in Arizona if you hadn't turned it into something that was more accessible to a broader audience.

SAM STEPHENSON: Well there's a funny story. So, Smith had a longtime girlfriend named Carole Thomas who was critical to him. He had a series of people that really helped him do what he did who were very smart people. And Carol was one of them. We met somewhere in Santa Monica for coffee. This was about 15 years ago. But it was after my first book, Dream Street. So, she'd seen that. And I said to her, “you know, Smith seemed to have this knack for people coming along and helping him do what he couldn't do himself at just the right time.” She looked me dead in the eye and said, “he's still doing it.” And I was like, “oh my God.” And that was really kind of a humbling moment, you know? So that's another reason why I went into these other characters like her, like, you know what? I don't want to pay so much homage to this guy. You know, there's a whole chapter on Eileen Smith in the book, who really made that Minamata Project happen in almost every single way. It's really her project. So, it kind of seems like it ends up that the story of any one person's life is actually the story of many lives. The same thing is happening with the Jane's Addiction project already. I mean there are people that were integral to that band. I can't really say too much at this point. But the story that gets told is just never the whole story.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Takes a village to write a biography.

SAM STEPHENSON: Yeah. I think it's probably true with anything.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Well I wanted to ask you something else about how - speaking of other people and people's lives. In recent years you've become a father. Obviously that's affected your day-to-day life, as it does anybody who becomes a parent. But has it in any way affected your work beyond, I would imagine the normal, like, “well, I can't just work all afternoon right now because I have to go pick up my kid at daycare,” or whatever? But how...

SAM STEPHENSON: Well, I think it's made my work better, definitely. I mean, to say it puts things in perspective is kind of a cliché. And that's not really what I mean to say. But, well, one thing I'll say is - parenting is - there are no formulas for that. There are no formulas for parenting. We would love for there to be. And that's why there's so many books on it. My wife Courtney's background is in studying the reproductive behavior of baboons, primates. So, we have learned a lot about the reproductive behavior and parenting of humans, you know, with our son. And I just - I don't know. I don't - I mean I should let her speak. I think the mother always knows a bit more about it. But I find some comfort in knowing that there's not really a formula that applies to every kid. And I think that gives me some confidence in the way that I work. Projects are almost like babies you know?

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: My last question for you is - I wanted to ask - what do you ultimately hope for your work in all of its capacities to accomplish?

SAM STEPHENSON: Oh man, I don't know. I mean, I do believe in this idea of valuing things that are obscured. That's not to say I think I'm some sort of Superman that can cast a value around. It's really just about being alert and being attentive and caring. So, I would hope one person would read something I've written and be a little more caring. That's what I want.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Our guest on Profiles today has been writer and researcher Sam Stephenson. Sam, thanks so much for joining us on Profiles.

SAM STEPHENSON: Thanks for having me.

DAVID BRENT JOHNSON: Thank you very much.


MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles including archives of past shows can be found at our website


Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.


Sam Stephenson (Photo Courtesy of the Author)

Sam Stephenson is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow who has studied the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith since 1997. Stephenson has followed Smith’s footsteps in twenty-six U.S. states, Japan and the Pacific; conducting more than five hundred oral history interviews. His book, Gene Smith’s Sink (2017) is the culmination of twenty years' work.

Stephenson’s first Smith book, Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project, was published in 2001. He won a 2001-2002 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2009, Alfred A. Knopf published his book, The Jazz Loft Project: The Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue. It won a 2010 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award, and a 2010 Innovative Use of Archives Award from the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York. For a dozen years Stephenson conceived and operated The Jazz Loft Project at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University. He was the 2012-13 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Professor of Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill.

W. Eugene Smith is not Stephenson’s only subject. In 2015 he won the ASCAP Deems Taylor / Virgil Thomson Prize for his documentary essay on John Coltrane’s first biographer, Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins, for The Paris Review. Other periodicals that have published his work include The New York Times, Tin House, A Public Space, Oxford American, and Smithsonian.

In April 2013 Stephenson formed the Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, a new platform from which to explore and experiment with documentary work. Rock Fish Stew’s inaugural project was Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ball Park, a season-long project to document the sights, sounds, and stories at Durham Bulls Athletic Park; employing a team of writers, art photographers, and mixed-media artists. Photographers included Kate Joyce, Leah Sobsey, Alec Soth, Hank Willis Thomas, and Hiroshi Watanabe.

Sam Stephenson is a native of Washington, North Carolina and now lives with his family in Bloomington, Indiana. Recently, he joined David Brent Johnson for a conversation in the WFIU studios.

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