Never have I found the limits of the photographic potential. Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance. Always, I am on the threshold.
—W. Eugene Smith
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—helped alter 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 variety of texts provided by the director of the CCP, the critic John Berger and from several archivists associated with the project.
The Big Book is, in short, an essential primary source document for the study of both the history of photography and the history of the photobook. These volumes will likely be the most comprehensive catalogue of W. Eugene Smith's work ever published and would make an important addition to any library.
The Big Book: Volumes One and Two
W. Eugene Smith
Publisher: University of Texas Press
Hardcover: 341 pages