Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

On Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith

For more than twenty years, Harry Smith (1923–1991) collected paper planes that he found on the streets of New York.

 - November 25, 2015

For more than twenty years, Harry Smith (1923–1991) collected paper planes that he found on the streets of New York. Now 251 planes have been documented in Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith Catalogue Raisonné, Volume I, a book showcasing Smith’s collection. Jason Fulford, co-founder and publisher of J&L Books, photographed the planes before Anthology Film Archives  donated them to the Getty Research Institute, in California. Fulford, who did not know Harry Smith during his lifetime, was taken by the planes and their whimsical nature. As the photographic process unravelled, the idea of sharing the photographs to a wider audience became inevitable.

According to various sources there are countless more planes waiting to be found. When Smith’s “spiritual wife,” the Beat muse Rosebud Feliu Pettet was interviewed by Andrew Lampert, an editor of the book and Curator of Collections at Anthology Film Archives, she said that there were “multiple” boxes full of planes, “meaning more than two, less than 50.” According to a 2003 article in Frieze, Smith catalogued and filed planes away in five large cardboard boxes, and in 1984, donated his collection to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C: “Then, as if lost in a pulp-hungry Bermuda triangle, they disappeared.” In 1994, when Anthology Film Archives requested the planes, only one box appeared. Despite that, when Andrew Lampert and John Klacsmann, both editors of the book, spoke to paper aeroplane experts they reassured them that there has never been such a thorough collection.

Each of the planes tells a different story, through different materials — yellow telephone book pages, notebook paper, colored construction paper, a menu for the nightclub Max’s Kansas City. The planes carry New York’s unique history, having survived the dirty, busy streets before being salvaged from an uncertain fate by Smith. Smith’s core interest in collecting was always anthropological: on his planes, he logged the location and time of each discovery, sometimes including detailed descriptions such as which side of the street the plane was found. Another note accompanying the paper planes included a classification system to denote the number of folds used to make the paper planes. In addition to collecting paper planes, Smith avidly sought after other obscure objects, including Ukrainian easter eggs, Seminole textiles and tarot cards. Showing the paper planes is simply discovering “the tip of an iceberg,” says Lampert. Indeed, after photographing the planes, Fulford continued to explore and document Smith’s massive collection of string figures, which led to String Figures: The Collections of Harry Smith Catalogue Raisonné, Volume II.

Defining Harry Smith is no easy feat: he was an artist, filmmaker, musicologist, anthropologist, and occultist — and was therefore known and respected in a variety of different artistic communities. He was, “an underground superstar whose fame rests in the ability to not pin him down as one thing or another,” according to Lampert. The photographs in these two volumes continue to piece together Smith’s vast, mysterious, and impressively creative character.