“The Big Book”

A book by W. Eugene Smith

Photojournalist W. Eugene Smith brought worldwide attention to social injustice and the disadvantaged with his intimate and provocative candid pictures. He deserves his reputation as the pioneer of humanistic photojournalism. During the mid-20th century, Smith produced countless series for Life magazine, Magnum Photos and other enterprises that redefined the photo essay. His landmark documentations covered the horrors of World War II during some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific theater, racism and poverty in the American South and an in-depth examination of Spanish peasant life under Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime. His last project, “Minamata,” exposed the devastating and crippling effects of industrial pollution.

Considered a genius by many, Smith was also known to be very difficult. Described as complicated, controlling and stubborn, he was a temperamental artist who often butted heads with editors. He resigned from Life magazine because of a dispute over his photo essay, “A Man of Mercy,” on Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer and his medical missionary work in West Africa.

In 1955, Hungarian-American photojournalist and filmmaker Stefan Lorant commissioned Smith to take 100 photos in three weeks for Lorant’s book celebrating the bicentennial of the city of Pittsburgh. Smith churned out nearly 17,000 photos, spending three years on the project. In the end he lost his house, his family and was nearly bankrupt.

It’s perplexing but certainly not out of character that soon after the exhaustive and disastrous Pittsburgh study, Smith took on another epic project.

In 1959 he began assembling a retrospective on what was then his life’s work, giving it the title “The Big Book,” also known as “The Walk to Paradise” and “The Total Book.” He labored nearly three years on a mock-up to submit to publishers. It was a Herculean task. Massive in scale, it required two folio-sized volumes with 380 pages and 450 images. The structure and layout were unconventional and challenging. The book was universally rejected as commercially unviable and was never published — until now.

The University of Texas Press in conjunction with the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, where Smith’s archives are held, has published a facsimile of “The Big Book.” The three-volume slipcased set, priced at a hefty $185, is adorned with two of Smith’s most indelible images: “Steelworker with Goggles” from the Pittsburgh project and “Frontline Soldier with Canteen, Saipan,” from his WWII series.

Reproducing Smith’s vision in its original format was a bold move by the publishers. They describe the book as “an essential source document for the study of both the history of photography and the history of the photo book.” No doubt it will provide rich mining and discourse for academia, curators and steadfast photography buffs eager to ingest and examine this comprehensive study of Smith’s technique, its historical context and ultimately his legacy.

For Smith admirers and photo book enthusiasts expecting a collection of glossy black and white iconic images, be warned: This is not your typical, lavish coffee table book. It is the exact replica of Smith’s original maquette — no edits, no captions and no retouching. Each page of the first two volumes consists of one to five images of varying sizes, in no specific order. Lacking is the context, story flow and narrative element essential to produce the deep emotional impact Smith’s work was famous for.

My quandary lies with the decision to duplicate Smith’s photocopied images in their current state. Smith, who was a meticulous printer in the darkroom, chose to copy his original prints for the mock-up using an Agfa Copyrapid, an early generation photocopier. The inferior quality of those copies deteriorated over time as they languished in storage resulting in yellowing and fading. Some of his lesser-known images are barely discernible, shrouded in a hazy, shadowy effect resembling ancient vintage photos. Without text it’s difficult to distinguish whether workers covered in soot were Welsh miners from the Great Britain series or coal miners from Pittsburgh. A picture of a malnourished child could have been pulled from his “Haiti” or “A Man of Mercy” projects.

The true beauty of Smith’s work has been greatly diminished here by the poor quality of the images and the many years in storage. Gone are the defined black and white lines and honest emotion, engaging viewers to linger longer, allowing the pictured humanity to seep into their consciousness. This was a common reaction to many of his photos, most notably “The Wake” of female mourners at the bedside of their recently deceased father from the “Spanish Village” and “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath” from “Minamata” of a mother cradling her severely deformed, naked daughter. This particular composition, echoing “The Pietà,” a Michelangelo sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, was a recurring theme throughout Smith’s career. The “Country Doctor,” “Nurse Midwife” and several photos from WWII were just a few of his essays that display this victim and healer pose that so often touched viewers on an emotional and spiritual level. The overwhelming response to Smith’s essay of Maude Callen, the heroic subject of “Nurse Midwife,” and the substandard conditions in which she had to treat patients elicited nearly $20,000 in donations. The money helped build a clinic in Callen’s name in the impoverished community of Pineville, S.C. The third volume, filled with expert essays, text and quality thumbnails, brings cohesion to the full set. Smith’s typed notes on the thousands of letters he received praising his famous photograph “The Walk to Paradise Garden” are a treasure. The magical image of his young son and daughter walking hand in hand through a clearing was the first photograph he took after recovering from serious wounds suffered during the Battle of Okinawa. One letter writer threatened to sue Smith, vehemently believing it was her children in the photo. The majority of letters from around the world lavished kind words and gratitude for his life-affirming picture.

Smith once said photography was his means of communication, yet he was perpetually torn between exposing the unvarnished truth as a photojournalist and expressing his artistic side through printing and retouching.

The commingling of joyful images of his young children and family next to a Haitian beggar and shots of Broadway stars paired alongside bodies of dead soldiers raise the question of whether his nontraditional layout was an intentional statement of good versus evil, darkness versus light — an underlying motif in his work.

Although “The Big Book” was clearly Smith’s vision, free of editorial restrictions, I have to wonder how much his mental issues and drug addiction contributed to his creative process. And was this mock-up intended as a final product or created simply as a visual aid?

Seeing “The Big Book” finally come to life is fascinating and remarkable. Still, I find myself contemplating what type of magnum opus retrospective “The Big Book” could have morphed into with a touch of modern technology and design.

Smith, no doubt, would be gnashing his teeth and shaking his fists in his grave.


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