Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: Unearthing the Harry Smith Archives

by Rani Singh

A still from Harry Smith's Early Abstractions, a highly respected avante garde series of animated films. Photo courtesy of Harry Smith Archives

The Harry Smith Archives is a private, not for profit 501c3 organization dedicated to the preservation, restoration, and presentation of the works of American polymath Harry Everett Smith (1923-1991). The Harry Smith Archives is housed at Anthology Film Archives, in New York City's Lower East Side, where Smith's films have been held for many years, having been selected by film scholars for inclusion in the Archive's "Essential Cinema" collection of the major works of film art in the early 1970s.

Best known to cinephiles for his experimental films incorporating ingenious original techniques of collage animation and painting directly onto film, Smith also distinguished himself in many other fields. In addition to being one of the most original and creative of filmmakers, he was a painter, well-known musicologist, anthropologist, linguist, and magician, who during his lifetime amassed a unique myriad of collections related to all these fields.

The Harry Smith collection consists of items that were in his possession at the time of his death. Archivist Bill Morgan cataloged his final belongings. The collection consists of books (mainly of an anthropological nature), records, audio recordings, tarot and playing cards, pop-up books, gourds and realia. (See
American Magus for excerpts from Bill Morgan's interesting catalog of this collection.)

As a consequence of his bohemian lifestyle, Smith lost, sold, wantonly destroyed and traded several lifetimes worth of collections. Moving from unpaid hotel bills at the Chelsea Hotel to any number of men's rooming houses on the Bowery to Allen Ginsberg's apartment, Smith's possessions took on a life of their own. Smith packed up and left under dark of night many times during his short 67 years, leaving behind boxes marked with a simple black-and-white sticker: "Property of Harry Smith."

Harry Smith. Photo © Allen Ginsberg, courtesy of Fahey-Klein Gallery.

Uncovering Smith's life and collections has been a form of urban archeology. There are many layers to be teased apart. One reference leads to the next with a truly organic naturalness. A cameraman who worked with Smith in the Seventies mentions a young kid who was hanging around with Smith consulting with him about string figures, which leads to an unfinished manuscript. A call to another former associate turns up a friend who specialized in Ukrainian Easter eggs, who organized donating Smith's world-class collection of eggs to the famous Göteborg Museum in Stockholm. Another leads to a legendary Kabbalah expert who was close friends with Smith in the Fifties and collaborated on many projects, including an al chemical "Tree of Life" print and 3-D greeting cards.

Perhaps the most rewarding work of the Archives has been focused on locating, photographing, and cataloging Smith's artwork. The bulk of these works remain in private hands, and the Archives has maintained an active accession policy. The paintings of Harry Smith are unknown masterpieces that reveal the true genius and breadth of one of America's most original minds. Currently there is an exhibition planned in Paris at the Jeu de Paume for Spring of 1999. This will coincide with the much-awaited premiere of the restored version of Smith's "lost" four-screen film masterpiece Mahagonny (ca. 1964-1979).

With the re-release in 1997 of Smith's seminal 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music on Smithsonian/Folkways records (which won two Grammy awards), Smith's work is beginning to come to light as we reach the millennium. The nascent Harry Smith Archives greets the new epoch with a full slate of upcoming projects.

For more information on the Harry Smith Archives, please e-mail, or call (212) 780-9224. Serious inquiries only, please. Also consult our web site at

Rani Singh is the President of the Harry Smith Archives. Producer, film researcher, archivist and editor, Singh was Smith's assistant for four years before his death.

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