The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 25, 2003

Unforgettable images of a century
Roopinder Singh

Century: One Hundred Years of Human Progress, Regression,
Suffering and Hope
by Bruce Bernard. Phaidon Press, London. Pages 1,236. Rs 800.

South Koreans proudly display the head of a guerrilla from the North (1952)
South Koreans proudly display
 the head of a guerrilla from 
the North (1952) 

ALL too often an image encapsulates reality. Confusing, complicated situations are somehow reduced to simplistic but understandable bites that reflect reality as we can deal with it. This is especially true for journalistic images.

For many, the barbarism and horror of the Vietnam war was brought home by Associated Press photographer Nick Utís 1972 image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, a 9-year-old girl running naked towards a camera screaming in agony as a napalm bomb dropped by US planes burned her flesh.

Raghu Raiís black and white photograph titled Burial of a Small Child invariably reminds us of the horror of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, in which thousands died when 40 tonnes of lethal gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Madhya Pradeshís capital. The haunting picture of sightless eyes of a child staring into eternity and the caring hand on its forehead, as the child lies in a makeshift grave, conveys the gruesomeness of the tragedy starkly.

The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which many young Chinese died and thousands of protesting students were imprisoned, was captured in many unforgettable images. What particularly moved the world was the image of a solitary student standing defiantly in front of a tank. A television shot showed the tank turning away in order to avoid him.


These three photographs are not included in Century, yet the book rightly went on to receive the Illustrated Book of the Year Award in the UK. It also received wide acclaim internationally.

Bruce Bernard worked as picture editor with various British magazines, notably The Sunday Times Magazine (1972-80) and the Saturday Independent Magazine (1988-92). He spent several years working on a book that was to have images of the 20th century. The first version was produced in 1999. It was a monumental work; the task of selecting roughly 10 images for every year was daunting, and the book weighed a monstrous six kilograms. It had 1,120 pages and was divided into six sections that were classified as per moments of historical significance, especially those of periods of conflict. They were: High Hopes and Recklessness (1899-1914); Self-Inflicted Wounds Remain Infected (1914-33); Rise and Fall of the Unspeakable (1933-45); Atomic Truce Walks a Tightrope (1945-65); Vietnam to the Moon to Soviet Collapse (1965-85); and Chaos and Hope on a Burdened Planet (1985-99). The book under review is a later edition, published last year. It is in a much smaller format and weighs far less.

What it loses in weight, it more than makes up in content, with the addition of The Final Chapter (1999-2001) where the late editorís associates have put together the final images of the last century. The original pictures have been selected by Bernardís trained, though rather random, roving eye. The effect of the juxtaposition of various photographs on the pages of the book varies from paradoxical to quixotic.

Thus, there is a photo of Russian workers toiling on the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1901, while on the opposite page American railroad magnate Andrew Carnegieís henchmen gorge themselves at a giant rail section table in Pittsburgh.

Then there is the photo of a German mother, widow of a Nazi, who, in 1945, murdered her children and killed herself afterwards, and on the facing page Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke presents an OBE to Major Allah Mohammed for his fighting the Japanese in Burma. One wonders how the two are related.

For sheer shock value, the 1952 photo of a smiling South Korean displaying the head of a guerrilla from the North scores over the rest. It is interesting that both this and the photo of the German mother are by Margaret Bourke-White, the pioneering and award-winning American woman photojournalist who is considered to be one of the hundred most influential women of the century

This reviewer found the 1964 photograph of two Turks killed by Greeks in Cyprus evocative of varying, indeed contrasting, human responses to the same situation. There is a picture, taken by an unnamed press photographer of a British soldier looking at the bodies. The soldier is aloof and calm, looking at the corpses with quizzical interest. On the facing page is a photograph taken minutes later by Don McCullin. It shows a wailing woman and other shocked family members. Same incident, but different realities.

While the pictures speak for themselves, at times the captions fail to provide more than banal detail. But to be fair, the notes on historical background are pithy word sketches that help in bringing perspective. However, credits for the photographs should have been given with each work of art and should not have been dumped together at the end of the book. Indian readers will have to be see Margaret Bourke-Whiteís famous picture, Gandhi at his Spinning Wheel, elsewhere.

At times humour and a bit of glamour break the monotony of the horror that marked the turning points of the century that has just gone by. These visual images of the last hundred years will prompt much cogitation as readers dip into this vast compendium from time to time. The book will definitely occupy a place of pride on bookshelves and the new format makes it complete, as well as more manageable. It is just 1.5 kg.