W Eugene Smith, the photographer who wanted to record everything

By Sean O’Hagan

Smith took many famous pictures, but also taped hours of audio of jazz greats, writers and artists of the day in his New York loft. A new book explores his strange world

In April 1977, the photographer W Eugene Smith sat in a wheelchair in 23rd Street in New York and oversaw the loading of his vast archive into two removal trucks by a team of young volunteers. Among material carried out of his loft and transported to the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona were several hundred thousand photographic prints and negatives, hundreds of notebooks filled with his writings, boxes of cameras and accessories, 25,000 LPs and 8,000 books. His entire archive filled a high-school gymnasium, floor to ceiling, and weighed about 22 tonnes.

Like many photographers, Smith was obsessive in the pursuit of his vision, but fuelled by alcohol and a long-term addiction to amphetamines, his compulsive behaviour had over the years become extreme. Among his archives were several boxes containing photocopies of all the letters he had ever written.

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