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The Big Book

April 11, 2014 | by

On photographer W. Eugene Smith’s unseen opus.

Eugene-Cover

A spread from the facsimile edition of W. Eugene Smith’s The Big Book.

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On September 2, 1958, W. Eugene Smith’s passport was stamped at the airport in Geneva, Switzerland. Hired by General Dynamics, he was there to photograph the United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, known as “Atoms for Peace.” He was to be paid $2,500 for two weeks of work (about $20,000 in 2014 money), plus a $20 per diem. Commercial work wasn’t Smith’s preference, but he needed the money. He needed some distance from New York, too.

A week later, on September 9, Smith’s long-awaited extended essay on the city of Pittsburgh hit newsstands in Popular Photography’s Photography Annual 1959. It was the culmination of a three-and-a-half-year odyssey that began with a three-week assignment and led to 22,000 exposed negatives, two thousand of which he said were “valid” for his essay. He staked his reputation on the work, evoking Joyce, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Beethoven, among others, as influences for the “layers” intended in his Pittsburgh layouts. Two consecutive Guggenheim fellowships (the first one coinciding with his friend Robert Frank’s fellowship for the work that became The Americans) further raised expectations. After turning down $20,000 from both Life and Look magazines when they would not agree to his demands for editorial control, Popular Photography offered to put thirty-six pages of their Annual 1959 at his disposal for $3,500. Smith accepted.

Now the anticipated magnum opus was set to arrive. But rather than stick around to toast his achievement, Smith jetted to Geneva. He had anticipated a Pittsburgh flameout earlier that summer, in a letter to his uncle, Jesse Caplinger: “The seemingly eternal, certainly infernal Pittsburgh project—the sagging, losing effort to make the first of its publication forms so right in measure to the standards I had set for it … it is a failure.” Later, he wrote his friend Ansel Adams to “apologize” for “the debacle of Pittsburgh as printed.” Read More »

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