by GREG SIERING
Author Sam Stephenson’s work focuses on the culture, music, and art that develops in large cities like Los Angeles and New York, yet, he says, Bloomington is a good place for a writer with eclectic cultural interests.
Stephenson, 53, is probably best known for his extensive examination of photographer W. Eugene Smith. In his book Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), Stephenson employs his characteristic style of gathering multiple stories and points of view and presenting them in a sort of verbal montage that lets readers see a full, if potentially disjointed, image of the photographer.
Capturing that wide-angle view requires Stephenson to conduct extensive and varied interviews. “I realized when doing all those interviews that people would have very different memories and views of that person,” he says. “You need to do a lot of work to get anywhere near an accurate picture. It’s hard to pin down any human being.”
Stephenson also incorporates multimedia to gather different perspectives. “I like to tell stories in different ways,” he says, “and the different media have different strengths.” With The Jazz Loft Project (Knopf, 2009), which examines Smith’s efforts to chronicle the 1950s and ’60s New York City jazz scene, Stephenson combined writing and photography, focused on audio in a radio series, and combined all three in a multimedia exhibition that travelled the country in 2010–13.
His current project—supported by a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship—explores the growth of Jane’s Addiction, the alternative rock band that gained a cult following in the late 1980s. His examination goes beyond music, however, looking at the band’s growth within the social and political contexts of its time. Both this work and The Jazz Loft Project share a common goal of understanding the cultural contexts and subtexts of art, something Stephenson calls “digging in deep to where cultural fermentation is happening.”
Stephenson came to Bloomington three years ago with his wife, Courtney Fitzpatrick, an evolutionary biologist at Indiana University, and says he finds the city has many qualities that help him do his work. “There is a fertility of creative thinking around Bloomington,” he says, citing people like poet Ross Gay and places like the Book Corner, Landlocked Music, record label Secretly Canadian, and the Monroe County Public Library.
When people ask him about life in Bloomington, he has a ready answer. “It has a world-class [public] library and world-class record store,” he tells them. “That says it all. That indicates the vitality of the town.”