Raymond Smith remembers: “In late June of 1974 I set out on a journey with the somewhat Whitmanesque mission of capturing in photographs something about the America of the 1970s.”
His traveling companion was Suzanne Boyd. The two of them were up for adventure, for discovery.
Forty-three years later, last Wednesday afternoon, Smith, now 74, sat in his sprawling three-story house in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood, surrounded by books and his photo prints, and looked back on that time.
He was then working on his master’s degree in American studies at Yale. Smith said of his friend Boyd, “She had the V.W. and the camping gear. We camped out and stayed with friends. I had $300 saved for the entire trip.”
“The trip was somewhat aborted because the car broke down in Kansas City,” he said. “That was after about six weeks on the road, mostly in the South.”
“It couldn’t be repaired,” he said of that ancient Volkswagen. “I headed back to New Haven on a train.” (Boyd headed south to Mexico.)
But Smith was carrying with him 65 rolls of film containing about 700 remarkably evocative photos revealing the many faces of America.
For four decades, those photos were rarely seen, except for brief exhibitions at the Archetype Gallery in New Haven in 1974 and at Yale’s Cross Campus Library in 1975. In need of money, Smith made a decent living as a seller of rare books on art, architecture, design and photography (R.W. Smith Bookseller).
But he was unknown, as out of sight as were his photos.
Then something was rekindled in him in 2009, when Smith’s mother died after he had spent nine years taking care of her in his home.
“Every once in a while over the years, I’d shown my work to people, telling them I’d long wanted to publish it,” he noted. “Finally I said, ‘OK, let’s make a push.’”
Smith used a connection to get a meeting with Joshua Chuang, who was curator of photography at the Yale University Art Gallery. “He looked at my work and said, ‘Where have you been for 35 years?’ I told him, ‘Well, I had to make a living. I wasn’t interested in commercial photography, so I’ve been working as a bookseller.’”
“There’s definitely a book here,” Chuang told him.
Smith called that conversation “my affirmation.” He set up a meeting with an editor at Yale University Press. “She was enthusiastic but she said, ‘It would be advisable to have an exhibition; do you think you could get one?’”
Smith reached out to museums in the South, because that’s where so many of his photos had been taken. He received a receptive response from Michael Panhorst, curator at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama. And so in the summer of 2014 that museum unveiled his work in an exhibition.
In conjunction with that, Smith at last saw the publication of “In Time We Shall Know Ourselves,” showcasing the highlights of his 1974 journey.
But it wasn’t published by Yale University Press. “They kept me dangling too long,” Smith said. “Then my long-time friend Peter Hastings Falk came to my rescue.”
Falk, a fine arts publisher based in Madison, delivered the hard-bound book, containing 52 of Smith’s photos and essays on his work by Alexander Nemerov, an arts and humanities professor at Stanford University and Richard H. King, professor emeritus of American intellectual history at the University of Nottingham. (The book can be purchased by contacting Smith at [email protected])
Smith’s book also contains his short essay, “Retrospect.” I used the start of his second paragraph as the lead of this column.
Smith began that essay by stating: “I have always thought photography more closely related to literature than to the other visual arts. With regard to portraits, which dominate my sequence, they might be read as short stories exploding beyond their frame…”
His essay also explained where he got the title for his book. On a hot July day during that trip, driving south toward New Orleans and on the outskirts of Hattiesburg, Miss., he saw this sign: “In time we shall know ourselves/ Even as also we are known/ As we ourselves are known.”
Smith wrote that down in his journal and came upon it four decades later while browsing through his log.
In King’s essay he notes Smith while at Yale was a student of the revered photographer Walker Evans, who took photos in the South for his 1941 book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” with text by James Agee.
King reports Smith was pleased to hear Evans tell him of the people he photographed: “You have a way of getting close.”
Smith told me about Evans, “He was my mentor, my biggest inspiration. And he encouraged me.”
But Smith added, “I taught myself. I don’t say that I ‘studied’ with Evans. We had conversations. It was mainly sharing his passion for photography, looking at people’s work, discussing it. But he loved my work from the beginning. That’s why I had a special relationship with him.”
Smith explained what he had set out to do in the summer of 1974: “What Evans did in the ‘30s and Robert Frank did (for his book “The Americans”) in the ‘50s, I thought I might do for the ‘70s. It was just to photograph the people I encountered, what I saw.”
“I am an observer,” he explained. “But there is a sensitivity. It’s more than taking pictures. There’s something behind it.”
Asked how he got people to cooperate and act naturally, Smith replied, “I was not aggressive at all. Having a friend with me who was attractive, that didn’t hurt — especially with the men in the garages in Georgia! It was very low key. People would see me taking photos and they’d get interested. And I’d ask, ‘Would you mind if I took your picture?’
“I didn’t want people posing; I wanted them to feel natural. If they posed, I just waited and waited until they stopped. A lot of emotional investment went into it. Usually I took just a single portrait. I knew when I had it.”
Smith has resisted switching to digital photography. “When people ask me that, I just have to say, ‘Well, no — because the prints you can get from working with your hands in a darkroom seem to have so much more punch.”
Smith invited our staff photographer Peter Hvizdak and me to go down to his basement and see the darkroom he had installed a few years ago, with the help of Yale’s University Photographer Michael Marsland.
That room, behind a curtain, is filled with trays, paper, lenses and other equipment Marsland gave to Smith after he discontinued his own darkroom at Yale.
In an email, Marsland told me he tried to convince his old friend to have his negatives scanned and printed digitally. “He would have none of that. He wanted to make prints exactly the way he had 40 years ago. And he did. They were beautiful … These images, reaching across the decades, are as strong and present and true as ever.”
After Smith showed us his darkroom, he brought us up to his second floor, where we beheld “my photography room.” It is jammed with bookcases stuffed with photography books. “As you can see, it’s overflowing.”
When I asked if the books were for sale, he said, “Oh yeah! This is my business. You can’t be a bookseller and a collector. You can’t hold onto things.”
When we went back downstairs and Smith showed me his own book, he said, “I’m recapturing my youth. The work that was hidden away for all those years is now seeing the light. This book is something I’ve wanted to do for 30-40 years. I thought, ‘If this has the power to move somebody …’ That was always my dream and I thought it would hold. I’ve kept this dream alive all these years.”
And now he is working on a second book, with more exhibitions planned, perhaps even one in New Haven.
Contact Randall Beach at [email protected] or 203-680-9345.