In 1957, W. Eugene Smith left the home of his wife and four children and moved into a loft in Manhattan.
Smith — a former photographer for Life magazine — developed 40,000 photographs taken in that apartment, some featuring typical New York life and some featuring great jazz musicians of the time.
He also recorded 4,000 hours of audio — newscasts, jam sessions and conversations from the loft.
Some of these images and recordings were combined to create “The Jazz Loft Project,” an exhibition currently on display at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
The exhibition was organized by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke.
“We loved the project from the moment we heard about it,” said Wendy Hower Livingston, manager of marketing and communications at the Nasher.
“The story behind the photography is very compelling.”
Sam Stephenson — the project’s director and a UNC alumnus — said he has worked on the project for 12 years.
In addition to the exhibition, Stephenson’s “The Jazz Loft Project” also features a radio series and a book about Smith’s photographs and recordings.
“What Smith captured was the offstage lives of the jazz musicians, but he also captured a fabric of the whole culture of the time,” Stephenson said.
Smith took photos of hundreds of jazz musicians and popular figures, including Thelonious Monk, Hall Overton and Ronnie Free.
So far, the project has documented nearly 600 people who stopped by the loft in the 1950s and 1960s.
Stephenson said about half of the photos were taken of the city view through Smith’s window.
A broken pane created a jagged frame for some, while others were clearer depictions of life in New York City.
The exhibition also offers several chances for viewer interaction.
Using an application for major mobile phone brands, visitors can see what their own pictures would look like with Smith’s broken window “frame.”
The Nasher is also encouraging visitors of the exhibition to submit their own pictures from the time period, Livingston said.
UNC jazz professor Jim Ketch said the exhibition shows the musicians’ commitment to their art.
“There was no money or audience (at the loft) per se, yet hundreds of musicians found themselves drawn to this scene,” Ketch said.
“People play music because they need to do it. It is essential for their well-being.”
Along with jazz musicians, artists of other mediums — like photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and controversial mixed-media artist Salvador Dali — graced the loft to revel in the nighttime scene.
“These images do capture the essence of this deep seated commitment to be creative and to say something profound,” Ketch said.
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