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.