Photo Essays

The Beat Artist Who Rescued Paper Planes from the Streets of NYC

Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith
Paper airplane from ‘Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith’ (photo by Jason Fulford, courtesy Anthology Film Archives and J&L Books)

Every kid appreciates the improbable heights of a well-crafted paper airplane, but rare are the adults who take notice. Prolific 20th-century polymath Harry Smith, who’s best known for his experimental filmmaking but also dabbled in painting, anthropology, music, and the occult, picked up every paper airplane he saw on the streets of Manhattan from 1961 to 1983. Only 251 survive from the Beat artist’s collection. All were crisply photographed by Jason Fulford for Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith, Catalogue Raisonné, Volume Iedited by John Klacsmann and Andrew Lampert and out now from J&L Books and Anthology Film Archives.

Cover of 'Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith'
Cover of ‘Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith’

Volume II of the Smith catalogue raisonnés focuses on his string figures, and future volumes will chronicle his collections of Ukrainian Easter eggs, gourds, Seminole textiles, tarot cards, and other ephemera. These incredible collections come from a man who lived mainly in hotel rooms, always surrounded by cardboard box towers of curios. It’s believed that Smith shipped the paper airplane boxes to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1984, seven years before he died. They were later rediscovered in the 1990s. In 2013, they were bequeathed to the Getty Research Institute, where they rejoined fellow collections from the Harry Smith Archives.

All this to say that the little planes have had quite a journey since they were haphazardly folded from homework, a Betty Crocker cookbook, a Heineken label, an anti-war rally flyer, receipts, and a Max’s Kansas City menu. Some bear footprints from their time on the street, others seem completely impossible to fly. They vary from sharp triangles to sleek jetliner forms. Each has Smith’s pencil markings noting when and where he found the plane — nearly all in Manhattan, south of Central Park, including one in the lobby of his periodic home the Chelsea Hotel, on June 14, 1967. Others were made for Smith by friends and acquaintances with annotations like “Kenneth Lea […] learned in Memphis – used until 5th Grade – 3-4-62.”

Smith “was interested in the changes in their morphology over the years, with some plane designs disappearing and then mysteriously reappearing years later,” says his friend William Breeze in the book. M. Henry Jones relates an account of Smith’s obsessive collecting habits:

He would run out in front of the cabs to get them, you know, before they got run over. I remember one time we saw one in the air he was just running everywhere trying to figure out where it was going to be. He was just like out of his mind, completely. He couldn’t believe that he’d seen one. Someone, I guess, shot it from an upstairs building.

Flipping through the photographs, you only get a glimpse of where and how Smith found each plane, but there’s a sense of the joy of seeing a DIY aircraft take flight on the busy Manhattan streets.

Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith
Plane found on October 29, 1980 at Broadway and East 23rd Street (photo by Jason Fulford, courtesy Anthology Film Archives and J&L Books)
Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith
Paper airplane found on March 17, 1979 at West 28th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway (photo by Jason Fulford, courtesy Anthology Film Archives and J&L Books)
Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith
Paper airplane found on September 19, 1968 at 30 Cooper Square (photo by Jason Fulford, courtesy Anthology Film Archives and J&L Books)
Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith
Paper airplane found on January 20, 1968 at Fifth Avenue between West 34th Street and West 35th Street (photo by Jason Fulford, courtesy Anthology Film Archives and J&L Books)

Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith, Catalogue Raisonné, Volume I is published by J&L Books and Anthology Film Archives.

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