W. Eugene Smith and me at Helen Gee’s Limelight Gallery, 1957
Not a week goes by that I don’t think of W. Eugene Smith with a real sense of nostalgia. He was one of the most important people in my life, and a man who I truly loved. Just last week I was saying to Judith that I ought to do a blog about Gene and she reminded me that I’ve already done several! Then yesterday I received this photograph from Howard Greenberg who was recently visiting Stephen Bulger at the The Stephen Bulger Gallery to do some work with the David Heath archive, which the two of them co-own. They came across this photo taken by Dave in 1957 at the Limelight Gallery and I’m grateful that this scan was passed on to me.
This photo shows me helping Gene to edit and hang a show at Gee’s Limelight Gallery, one of the first galleries devoted solely to photography and a place where most people in the photography world at the time hung out. I would have my own show there a year later.
It was in 1957, the year my first child, Robin, was born, causing me to move out of the “jazz loft” at 821 Sixth Avenue into something more suitable for my growing family. I had turned my loft over to Gene, and shortly thereafter he began to wire the whole three floors for audio-taping, resulting in the now famous jazz tapes recently highlighted in Sam Stephenson’s Jazz Loft Project. Several years later he moved into the next loft I vacated.
Looking at this photo also brings back my appreciation for Helen Gee — a passionate and determined woman who did a great deal to create a market for fine art photography at time when the whole question of “is photography art?” was still being debated. I’m sure she was aware that she was making history. It was one of the first spaces to have on-going photography exhibits, and it caused a lot of consternation in the photography world at the time with people questioning why or how a coffee house could be an appropriate place to mount a respectable launch to photography as a legitimate art form!
Her obituary in the New York Times described her contribution this way:
Spacious and well lit, the Limelight was started in May 1954 and supported by the adjoining coffeehouse. Although a market in fine photographs was almost nonexistent, for about seven years Limelight carried on as if there were one, setting the standard for successors that came in a trickle in the early 1970’s and grew into a flood by the 1990’s.
So, sitting with this photograph has allowed me to give gratitude to two great people whose legacies have made a real difference for photography — and both of them were people of great courage. Thanks to Helen Gee for helping to create the space for photography to be legitimized as collectable art, and to W. Eugene Smith for being someone who not only wanted to change photojournalism, but to change the world. He rarely approached his work as “photo shoots”, but rather as opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others. His life and work will always remain as a testament and realization of that desire. I really do miss him.
Here’s another photo taken at the same time by friend and colleague James Karales.
P.S. For those who enjoyed my post Available Light: Coney Island at Night, I have this brief anecdote. I once called Gene to ask him if he used available light. He said: “Yes, whatever’s available!”