The shooting gallery;Book of the week;Books

29th October 1999 at 01:00
An awesome collection of photographs, dominated by images of violence and suffering, chronicles our turbulent century. Sean Coughlan asks if this is how we will be remembered.

CENTURY. Edited by Bruce Bernard. Phaidon pound;29.95.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is big, very big - in physical size and ambition. Century is a 1,000-page photographic account of the past 100 years, each year represented by a vivid selection of pictures.

You can hardly find a page that doesn't have an attention-grabbing image - from the horror of a lynching in Nebraska, to the grins of the Blairs on the threshold of Number 10.

Compiled by the former picture editor of The Sunday Times Magazine, this four-inch-thick tome includes more than 1,000 photographs of war, political upheaval and everyday life to create an impressionistic record of our times.

For example, the year 1914, with Europe on the brink of war, is captured in August Sander's famous picture of three young Germans heading across the fields to a dance. The image is heavy with poignancy and symbolism; frozen in time, the three suggest a continent moving towards an uncertain future.

Unlike a written history, this pictorial account has no need to be comprehensive. It can evoke rather than explain and suggest the atmosphere of an era without examining the complexities of the political background.

In this visual shorthand, we see the Thirties in the furrowed faces of workers in the Depression, Hitler leading obsessively symmetrical rallies, Bonnie and Clyde fooling around with a gun, and prostitutes outside a Chinese restaurant in London's Soho.

Captions provide brief information on context, and this is expanded in notes at the end of each chapter, but it is the pictures that hold the attention.

In a photograph of a smiling Robert Kennedy, there is a dramatic tension in the knowledge that the photograph was taken moments before his assassination in 1968.

There are many familiar pictures in this collection, some icons in their own right - a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in South Vietnam; Lenin addressing a crowd during the Russian revolution; the first Moon landing. But there are plenty of surprising and unfamiliar images, such as Lenin, after a series of strokes, staring wildly at the camera in a picture that was suppressed until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There are also any number of intrusive yet intriguing pictures of the dead and famous, including Oscar Wilde, Michael Collins, Martin Luther King, Tolstoy, General Franco and Mao Tse-tung.

Perhaps it is a fair comment on our century, but the book is filled with images of death, most of them violent and in circumstances that show humankind at its worst.

The rise of the Nazis and the evil of the Holocaust are recorded at length, with the familiar bleak images of hollow faces and mounds of human bones which still have the power to shock.

If Century suggests how we are going to be remembered, it isn't going to be with any nostalgia. A flick through this book reveals Chinese soldiers decapitated in the Boxer Rebellion, gunned-down gangsters in Chicago, Che Guevara's corpse put on display by his killers, a public execution in Afghanistan, and the huddled body of a Kurdish man gassed in an Iraqi chemical attack.

Among the most depressing images are those that seem to show how little society has advanced in 100 years. The recent sectarian slaughter in the Balkans and a picture from 1900 showing white warders in the US strapping a black prisoner to an electric chair beg the question: "How far have we progressed?" There are some upbeat images: the Beatles in 1961, looking absurdly young in the Cavern, the expectant faces in the crowd watching the breaching of the Berlin Wall, and Diego Maradona's manic pleasure as he lifts the 1986 World Cup.

But these are the exceptions. The largest part of this collection tracks the conflicts that have punctuated the century: two world wars, the Spanish Civil War, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Middle East and the killing fields in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Wherever you open this book there is another glimpse of energetic brutality and the misery of its victims.

Of course, no selection of photographs can cover everything. But, if there is a gap, it is in the absence of more everyday images, showing how people lived as well as how they died; how they spent their leisure time, how their homes looked, how they shopped or worked. Perhaps these might make less dramatic images than the extremes of conflict, but they would tell an equally valid story of our times.

This is the first century that such a book could have been published, the first that has had cameras waiting to record the expressions on faces in the greatest and grimmest of moments. If this collection of pictures has a theme it is to call for a greater sense of humanity, against the carefully gathered evidence of 100 years of cruelty and indifference.

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