W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) may not be the most impossible character in the history of American photojournalism, but he is definitely a contender. In a profession that attracts more than its share of obstinate, hot-tempered idealists, he holds the record for firings and rehirings, dramatic resignations from magazines and guilds, unpaid electricity bills, evictions, and emotional I.O.U.s. At the same time, his perfectionism drove him to make some of the most reproduced images of the twentieth century—testaments to the victims of war, madness, and industrial disaster; suites of photographs that told stories about quiet heroism in out-of-the-way places. As his colleague Arnold Newman said of Smith: “He’s crazy, but he’s great.”

How crazy, lonely, manipulative, gripped by demons he remained throughout his life was not known before this new biography by Jim Hughes. For those photographers and critics who...

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