Books Of The Year: Photography: The century in a thousand pictures

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
You can't often say that a photography book is "inexhaustible", but that's one of the words to describe Century (Phaidon pounds 29.95), a huge volume that weighs a ton, contains 1,118 pages and reproduces images - one to each page - from Atget's Paris in 1899 to our own day. The last picture is of a new production, in Berlin, of Beethoven's Fidelio, and its caption only remarks that the opera's "simple story of love and courage conquering hatred and brute force is one of the glories of Western art".

These are the words of Bruce Bernard, who devised the book and is its editor. He provides comments on all the photographs as well as some pages of historical context. Bernard is well known as an expert on photojournalism. And, like photojournalism itself, he observes rather than comments. Bernard's portrait by Lucian Freud is on the endpapers of Century. The painting catches the sturdy character of a man whose writing is wry, phlegmatic and always brief. Here is the paradox of the book and the camerawork it celebrates. The author is laid-back, almost anonymous. He's half-concealed, like a reporter's Leica; but despite all this self-effacement he presents us with a personal book that's an epic.

Century proceeds chronologically. Its themes emerge as we explore and revisit the years of our epoch. War, first of all; then displacement, human courage and endurance. Leisure, family, happiness are present but don't have the same weight, as alas is true of global life. Many photographs are unfamiliar, so there's a constant feeling of revelation and discovery, all the more so because one flicks backwards as well as forwards in a book of this size. Bernard's "pairings" on a double spread (he hints that he's proud of this element of his composition) expand and vary as we skip, select, go from one decade to another. It becomes clear that you're holding, and dealing with, a complex and suggestive book. It's a triumph, maybe a masterpiece.

Magnum (Phaidon pounds 39.95) also takes a wide view - not so successfully, because it's a disparate collection of photo-essays by the Magnum agency's heterogenous members. The quality is guaranteed, of course, but this survey of camerawork since the fall of the Berlin Wall is none the less a little jumbled. Notable contributions come from Henri Cartier-Bresson, out of retirement for the occasion, who presents portraits. Paul Fusco and Leonard Freed document American extremism and Ian Berry shows us the new South Africa. There are many others, all vividly involved with the world. The book accompanies the Magnum show at the Barbican (to 19 March).

Inadvertently, Magnum proves that photo-essays are often too short. Roman Vishniac's Children of a Vanished World (University of California pounds 14.95) has a perfectly judged length. Its pictures are culled from an archive of no fewer than 16,000 photos taken by Vishniac in Jewish villages in Eastern Europe in 1935-38. These ones are all of children. We want to know more and more about them, and their families, but then the book stops - stops dead. Such a haunting record of life before Nazism is exceedingly rare, and to be treasured. The book includes songs, chants and music.

Another archive is the basis of Philip Ziegler's Britain Then and Now (Weidenfeld pounds 25). It's the Francis Frith collection, formed by the man who had the 19th century's biggest picture-postcard business. Starting in the 1860s, he went round the country photographing everything, and members of his family were still snapping urban and rural scenes a century later. John Cleare has photographed lots of Frith's scenes as they are today, mostly ruined by motor traffic. Ziegler's erudite, lively text is social history that could well be used by schools.

Reuel Golden's Twentieth Century Photography (Carlton pounds 25) stars around 100 people, though for copyright reasons some top photographers are missing. The arrangement is alphabetical, which is useful, but this compilation is more than a reference book. Golden gives us famous shots and also some little-known camerawork (especially from recent years) that has come his way as a hands-on professional, a former editor of the British Journal of Photography. Golden's little essays are informative, as they should be. He also says what he thinks, and one suspects that he is more opinionated in private - or in the editorial offices of magazines, where so many real decisions about photography are made.

Golden likes fashion photography and deals fairly with its exponents. The problems of fashion snapping are well described by Martin Harrison in his David Bailey Archive One 1957-1969 (Thames and Hudson pounds 40). In this sumptuous album-style production there's very little we haven't seen before. That's the point. Here are all those pictures of Jean Shrimpton, Rita Tushingham, the Krays, Kenneth Tynan et al, while Bailey frankly admits that when he had exhausted such subjects there was nowhere else for him to go. Bill Jay's and Nigel Warburton's Bill Brandt (Thames and Hudson pounds 48) summarises a more distinguished and long-lasting photographic career. Still, Bailey had something that Brandt lacked, an unabashed love of finery and showing off. The best photographers are seldom puritans and do better work for advertising firms than for dictators. Margarita Tupitsyn's El Lissitsky (Thames and Hudson pounds 40) is a competent account of the Russian artist's photographic propaganda and neat, rulered design.