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The View From A Photographer's Jazz Loft

This is the story of 40,000 photographs and 4,000 hours of analog audio tape.

Down time in The Jazz Loft. (W. Eugene Smith/(c) 1957-1965, 2009, The Heirs Of W. Eugene Smith) hide caption

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In 1957, the celebrated photojournalist W. Eugene Smith left his wife and four children in the New York City suburbs and moved into a run-down five-story loft in lower Manhattan. The building already had been colonized by artists and musicians, and by the time Smith moved in, it was a frequent late-night hangout for the city's top jazz musicians: Charles Mingus. Zoot Sims. Thelonious Monk. Bill Evans. Roland Kirk.

Surely some of you photography junkies know the work of Eugene Smith. He shot iconic images of World War II, of a country doctor, of Albert Schweitzer, of his own children. When he moved into 821 Sixth Avenue, he was immured in an ambitious freelance assignment about Pittsburgh. (It was supposed to take him three weeks; it took him four years, and wound up a self-described failure.) Gradually, his backdrop became the very subject of his inquiry. He set up tape recorders so he could capture everything he heard, whether an epic jam session, a candid conversation or a late-night television program. And he took endless rounds of photographs in and around the loft. Like these:

Every Sunday this December, NPR is airing a new story about 821 Sixth Avenue — aka The Jazz Loft — using the tapes that Smith left behind. To get a taste, and for a good introduction to the space, check out last Sunday's first episode. These four NPR stories are part of a 10-part radio series originally broadcast on WNYC. And all that draws from The Jazz Loft Project, the massive initiative spearheaded by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University to take oral histories about the space, while preserving, archiving and transcribing Smith's tapes. It has all resulted in a new book.

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But — this being a photo blog — what about the photographs? The Jazz Loft Project and the W. Eugene Smith estate were kind enough to grant NPR access to 25 pictures and fascinating little excerpts from the tape. As you can hear, top-flight talent stopped by regularly; as you can see, Smith documented his space from all angles. Check out the online interactive we've put together for this radio series: The Jazz Loft Project: Sights And Sounds.

There are shots of great musicians in action, or in inaction. There are scenes from the neighborhood, which happened to be the wholesale flower district of Manhattan. And there are wonderfully random observations, too: one of Smith's cats, for instance, or cameos from the likes of Salvador Dal??. But one of my favorite images is that of an empty practice room: an upright piano on the left, an upright bass on the right, each illuminated by a single light source. In an adjacent room, two unidentified men are talking about who knows what — maybe they're musicians discussing harmony, or painters talking about exhibitions, or random visitors engrossed in a friendly bull session. Whatever the case, the impression is one of downtime.

W. Eugene Smith circa 1957 (W. Eugene Smith/(c) 1957-1965, 2009, The Heirs Of W. Eugene Smith) hide caption

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It's easy to romanticize The Jazz Loft as a group of bohemian artist types, up at all hours of the night, improvising and painting and restlessly seeking new founts of creativity. But it wasn't all a breathless Jack Kerouac novel all the time — it couldn't be, with real life having to go on somehow. The beauty of The Jazz Loft Project is that in those 40,000 photos, those 4,000 hours of tape, a story emerges that is much bigger than music: It's a full cross section of New York's cultural life at one of its richest, most exciting junctures.

Patrick Jarenwattananon edits A Blog Supreme, NPR's jazz blog, and helped to facilitate the Jazz Loft Project online for NPR Music.