Many of the musicians at Sixth Avenue dropped from sight, some turning up years later in small combos in resorts, others in very different lives. The bassist Jimmy Stevenson, who appears in several of Smith’s pictures, left New York in the 1960s and vanished. In 1998 the writer Sam Stephenson began archiving, editing, and selecting the recorded and photographic material Smith left: the exhibition and its informative, genial catalog are the results of his efforts. When he went in search of musicians who had been part of the loft scene, he eventually found Stevenson in 2003, who with his wife was selling homemade wind-chimes at a roadside stand in California wine country. Smith’s photographs tell us over and over that life is change and movement. The world below his window was a world at work and in motion. Firefighters, shoppers, laborers lifting manhole covers, a guy rolling two folded mattresses down the street, delivery trucks, children with their families, mounted police on patrol — so much direction! A pair of photos shows a smurfy guy in a T-shirt trying to cross Sixth Avenue. He turns this way, then that way, his body torqued as if the city’s energy were spinning and confusing him. My favorite image in the exhibition is also the classic representation of all the stories musical and streetside that Smith documented. From the loft window we look down on a woman under a dainty umbrella, a fixed sweet spot in a scene surrounded by busy foot-tracks going every which way in slushy snow. The umbrella looks like it has paused for the moment, just before the walker left behind tracks of her own. ■
The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue 1957–1965, is on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts until October 7, 2012. 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park. 619-238-7559; mopa.org.