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.