W. Eugene Smith, an icon in the field of twentieth-century photography, is best known as the master of the humanistic photographic essay. Smith’s most expressive and frequently reproduced images—World War II combat, the country doctor and nurse-midwife, Pittsburgh, Albert Schweitzer in Africa, rural Spanish villagers, and the mentally ill in Haiti—have altered our perception and understanding of the world.
In 1959, Smith became obsessed with creating an extended photo-essay that he called “The Big Book,” a complex retrospective of his work that would reflect his philosophy of art and critique of the world. Smith’s layout grouped photographs out of context and chronological order to form a series of connected “visual chapters and subchapters” that were intended to have a Joycean or Faulknerian literary quality. After three years of intense labor, Smith completed two handmade folio-sized maquettes to send to publishers. With 380 pages and 450 images, The Big Book was universally rejected as unviable and non-commercial, and it was never published.
Now, five decades later, a facsimile of W. Eugene Smith’s The Big Book, which is part of the Smith Archive at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona, is in print for the first time. Accompanying the facsimile is a supporting volume with a foreword by Dr. Katherine Martinez, Director of CCP; an introduction by William S. Johnson, who arranged Smith’s archive at CCP; an essay by the renowned Swiss critic John Berger; notes on the Smith Collection at CCP by archivist Leslie Squyres and Jennifer Jae Gutierrez. “The Walk to Paradise Garden,” by W. Eugene Smith; and an appendix that maps Smith’s complete layout with titles, dates, and reproductions of each image from original prints. The Big Book is an essential primary source document for the study of both the history of photography and the history of the photobook. This set, in slipcase, will likely be the most comprehensive catalogue of W. Eugene Smith’s work ever published.
Foreword by Dr. Katherine Martinez, Director of the Center for Creative Photography
Introduction. Excerpt from W. Eugene Smith: Middle Years by William S. Johnson
Essay. Pieta: W. Eugene Smith by John Berger
Notes on the W. Eugene Smith Archive and Materials Associated with His Big Book Project at the Center for Creative Photography by Leslie Squyres, Jennifer Jae Gutierrez, and Arthur J. Bell
The Walk to Paradise Garden by W. Eugene Smith
The Big Book
LensCulture 2014 Photobook of the Year Selection
"Massive. . . a treasure."
Photo-Eye Best Books of 2013 Selection
"Gene Smith taught me how to print when I was young. I had always thought he was an interesting journalist photographer, and a kind man. Now I know, to my surprise, that he was a great book artist way ahead of his time."
—John Gossage, Photo-Eye Blog
Aperture/Paris Photo 2014 Photobook of the Year Shortlist
“I've absorbed the Big Book and find it utterly remarkable… I think you've put into the world something that is as close to Smith's flesh and blood as one can get with a bound book.”
—Sam Stephenson, author of The Jazz Loft Project, Dream Street, and the forthcoming biography Gene Smith’s Sink, to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2015
“At first, the decision to reproduce the book down to the poor-quality images seems like a questionable choice — likely only to attract photo geeks. But over time the visual presentation grows on the reader and emphasizes the cohesive nature of Mr. Smith’s book as a whole as opposed to a collection of individual photos.”
—James Estrin, New York Times Lens blog
"Radical in structure and design, the result… is likely to be the surest proof of the photographer's powerful skill and vision"
"With photographs of children, war, city streets, landscapes, workers, entertainers, religion, doubt, mysterious scenes of beauty and threats of death, The Big Book appears to accomplish Smith’s goals, and embody a perspective of that strange and infinite thing called ‘the human condition’. The atypical layout and the images’ poor readability compounds the effect, leading to something of an emotional whirlwind, vertiginous."
—Katherine Oktober Matthews, GUP Magazine