The Broader Picture: Deja vu?

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AS WE APPROACH the turn of the millennium, there's a widespread sense of trepidation - a nagging worry that the Dome will be a damp squib or that at the midnight hour a bug will screw up all our computers and everything else with them. This is in stark contrast to the confident optimism shown 100 years ago, when the great social commentator Emile Zola took these photographs at the 1900 Paris World Fair.

Zola took up photography seriously in 1898, when he was living in England. Every page of his novels had shown exceptional powers of visual observation, but now he declared: "I don't think you can say you have properly seen something if you haven't photographed it, revealing a mass of details which otherwise you wouldn't have noticed."

Zola did nothing by half measures, and in the last seven years of his life he took some 7,000 photographs. There was a darkroom in each of his three establishments (he had a second family in England), and he did all his own developing and printing. He had at least 10 cameras, some of them highly specialised. One took 3.5 by 12in panoramas, while the plates on another were a massive 12 by 16in. He was technically innovative. While in England, he mounted a small camera on his bicycle handlebars. This ingeniously provided a mobile tripod-substitute. How he did the view-finding I don't know, but this handlebar photography would have provided ample candid-camera opportunities. Indeed, the results anticipate the work of Cartier-Bresson - which Zola also did by not cropping or retouching his pictures.

Zola loved expos. He wrote about them extensively, cancelled a summer holiday to attend one, and in London took numerous photographs of the Crystal Palace, the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The 1900 Paris Expo let him loose on the Eiffel Tower. It had actually been built for the earlier 1889 Exposition, but it was there to stay, and Zola took hundreds of pictures of it at all times of day and night and in all kinds of weather. He also took photographs from it, using its arches and beams for daring pictorial compositions. For Zola, the tower was perfect. His own father had been a brilliant civil engineer, and Gustave Eiffel's structure epitomised the architecture which Zola described as expressing the style of the 19th century "with its audacious cast-iron structures which are at the same time so light and so solid".

Zola probably took more photographs of the 1900 Expo than anyone else. The show was huge, covering 280 acres. There was a thrilling Ferris wheel which, along with national pavilions, attracted some 50 million visitors in seven months. The transport systems were right up to the minute. There was the new Gare d'Orsay, and the new underground - the Metropolitan - with its still-astonishing Art Nouveau entrances by Hector Guimard.

An electric train completed a full circuit of the Exposition site in 20 minutes. In the opposite direction, more leisurely but even more exciting, was the two miles of trottoir roulant, or moving pavement. It was in three sections - a fixed sidewalk from which you stepped easily to one moving at 2.5mph, and then to one going at a brisk 5.5mph. And Zola's camera caught it all.

Perhaps, at the end of the 20th century, there is some distinguished literary figure documenting the Millennium Dome who is as thrilled by the prospect of the next century's technology as Zola was 100 years ago. Perhaps, but I doubt it.

`1900: Art at the Crossroads', an exhibition of art from the Paris World Fair, is at the Royal Academy, in London, from 16 January