Last year, the University of Texas Press published a facsimile of photographer W. Eugene Smith’s The Big Book. The original was a two-book maquette handmade by Smith, which he singlehandedly edited, sequenced, and constructed. The Big Book, which was modeled after Edward Steichen’s successful The Family of Man, was Smith’s attempt to anthologize the many projects he had worked on during the span of his varied career. Unfortunately, Smith was unable to complete The Big Book before he died in 1978 at the age of 60 years old, and it remained unpublished until last year.
To fully realize how committed Smith was to this book, it is important to know the size of the object he sometimes carried with him: Each book measures about 13 inches high by 9-¾ inches wide, and is 3 inches thick. It is unwieldy, heavy, and nowadays even more fragile. The original Big Book is housed in Smith’s massive archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.
More than showing the vast scope of a major photographer’s career, the uniqueness of these volumes is in seeing what Smith himself chose to look at. It’s his edit, pure and simple, without anyone else guiding or shaping it. There is a poignancy in turning the yellowed pages, tonally preserved from the original aged and yellowed volumes. It is an intimate experience to hold even this replica in one’s hands, to see the order in which Smith put his own images. It is more than being impressed with the breadth of his work, more than just seeing what he saw: it is seeing how he thought about what he saw.
Seeing the contents of the book is seeing what mattered to Smith. War, death, birth, childhood, work, daily life, monumental events, race, racism, civil rights, it’s all in there. Taken as a whole, it seems impossible to come away from The Big Book without a certainty that Smith was the most dedicated of humanists. That he was driven to undertake such a massive effort is, in and of itself, a major indication of Smith’s drive to push the photographic language forward.
All book excerpts from The Big Book by W. Eugene Smith © The Arizona Board of Regents, University of Arizona, Center for Creative Photography. All photographs © 2013 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith. Used by permission of the University of Texas Press, www.utexaspress.com.
First photograph in post: ”Steelworker with Goggles,” 1955, by W. Eugene Smith