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Book Review: The Big Book


Book Review The Big Book By W. Eugene Smith Reviewed by Tom Leininger If you are expecting two volumes of gloriously printed photographs by W. Eugene Smith, this is not the book for you. If you are interested in seeing a glimpse of how Smith saw his own work in the late 1950s, then take note of this book. It pulls back the curtain to show his ego and talent at work. This is not the symphony Smith wanted us to hear, it is the jazz that permeated his loft when he created this maquette.

The Big Book. By W. Eugene Smith.
 University of Texas Press, 2013.
 
The Big Book
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

By W. Eugene Smith. 
$185.00
University Of Texas Press, Austin, 2013. 400 pp., illustrated throughout, 10x13¼".


“Smith saw the book as visual symphony, counterpointing the somewhat inchoate but nevertheless powerful themes of his personal photographic philosophy.” From the Afterword by John G. Morris in Let Truth Be The Prejudice: The Life and Photographs of W. Eugene Smith

If you are expecting two volumes of gloriously printed photographs by W. Eugene Smith, this is not the book for you. If you are interested in seeing a glimpse of how Smith saw his own work in the late 1950s, then take note of this book. It pulls back the curtain to show his ego and talent at work. This is not the symphony Smith wanted us to hear, it is the jazz that permeated his loft when he created this maquette.

The Big Book. By W. Eugene Smith. University of Texas Press, 2013.

Smith was a magician in the darkroom. Shadows and highlights were his visual language. Smith’s prints forced the viewer to see the picture in a certain way; bleached highlights and rich black shadows became roadmaps for viewers to navigate his pictures. This book does not focus on this aspect of Smith’s legacy. The pages are faithful reproductions of a two-volume book dummy created with cream-colored paper and early photocopies of Smith’s prints. All of the lusciousness is washed out of the prints, yet they showcase his formal vision of the interplay between shadow and highlight. This is a reinterpreted and abstracted view of Smith, one that he probably would not have wanted published. This is W. Eugene Smith in a way you have not seen before. Photographs mutate into abstract designs where bright white shapes dance across seas of black.

We are seeing W. Eugene Smith at work. At this period of time, Japan was ahead of him and many important stories like the Country Doctor, Nurse Midwife, Pittsburgh, Word War Two were behind him. This book was a chance for him to declare his place and vision of the medium. Smith knows he is a genius, but the book shows that he is still a work in progress. His mind is hazy from Dexedrine and alcohol. Trying to work out his legacy in real time was a precarious endeavor at best. While the book is effective in showing Smith’s prodigious output, the metaphors he postulates need to be clearer. Fewer pictures into one volume would have brought his voice out. Working with editors was not always one of Smith’s strong points.

The Big Book. By W. Eugene Smith. University of Texas Press, 2013.

The book starts with his iconic photograph The Walk to Paradise Garden. Smith used it to define the book. This image, along with many others, is of his children, and the pictures bring hope to the book. Children are seen as serious, playful, distant and vulnerable people that need tending to. Many of the themes Smith worked through are seen in the eyes of the children he photographed.

The Big Book. By W. Eugene Smith. University of Texas Press, 2013.

Volume Two ends on a dark note with his work from the war mixed with pictures of children. He plays death and life off each other on same page. The war pictures are more abstract and show an idea of Hell next to an image of a child representing the future. One thing is clear, Smith was not sure about the future, or technology, possibly because of what he saw in the war. The images of children can be seen as a possible hope that the future will work out, but his photographs from assignments about technology and energy exude the tension between these ideas.

The Big Book. By W. Eugene Smith. University of Texas Press, 2013.

Pictures fill the large pages of the book. They stretch across two pages in places, or a serve as small exclamation points in different page designs. Text blocks were planned for the book but are not included, so it is hard to make a definitive statement about Smith’s design, though he clearly understood the role tension played in layout. The themes he pulls together in pages are interesting, but there is a bit of dated feel to the design. It is not as clean and organized as books of today are, but neither was Smith’s life, so it is not surprising.

The Big Book. By W. Eugene Smith. University of Texas Press, 2013.

The third volume contains essays and texts about the book and a small reproduction of each picture in the book. The volume of his output is staggering; this book was just one of the items in his archive that takes up 300 linear feet of shelf space at the Center for Creative Photography. He also left behind 3,000 exhibition quality prints and 53,000 work prints. Few photographers in the 20th century can match his prolific output. A typewritten introduction is reproduced here, and seeing the actual typed page brings home the idea that Smith did all of this during a different technological time. In it Smith talks about the impact the photograph The Walk To Paradise Garden had up until that point in time. He toyed with naming the book after it. Seeing a picture of the actual maquette Smith made puts the three-volume set in perspective. The whole set of books overwhelms like Smith does in general.

John Berger’s essay sheds light on the man Smith was and presents the notion that he is one of the more subjective photographers of his time. Though Smith had not yet made his well know image of Tomoko Uemura being bathed, Berger shows that Smith was working with the idea of the Pieta a long time before this beautiful and heartbreaking picture. It is the horizontal figure being cared for by a vertical figure. Berger goes on to say that Smith relates to the horizontal figure, because that tended to be how he dealt with editors, assistants, doctors, as one of the “unjustly wounded.” The evidence he has laid out has me thinking more about Smith’s work on a deeper level than I considered before.

The Big Book. By W. Eugene Smith. University of Texas Press, 2013.

Smith is a complex figure in the history of the medium. Going through The Big Book has taken me back to Shadow & Substance the biography about Smith by Jim Hughes along with Let Truth Be The Prejudice, which was one of the first photography books I purchased back in the late 1980s. Personally, I have always been drawn to the Pittsburgh work. It is his most lyrical and full of life. He was able to see the small dramas in the most routine of situations, but Pittsburgh became too big for Smith to handle because he photographed so much. He was immersed in the city.

The Big Book is a heavy three-volume set of books that presents W. Eugene Smith in a way that has not been seen before. This is Smith trying to get a handle on himself and his legacy at a point in time where his own life was a mess. The reproduction, while faithful to the object created, is not what you expect, but it gives you something surprisingly wonderful, messy and overbearing in size and tone.—TOM LEININGER

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2013 by:
John Gossage


TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.

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