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Famous Scenes, Human Pathos, and Restrained Beauty
on November 14, 2000
Before considering this book, let me note that like many photography books this one contains a fair number of nude images of men and women that will offend some. If bare flesh is not something you want to see in your books, avoid this one.
Grading this book was difficult. The photographs were well chosen to be interesting and rewarding, were reproduced faithfully, and worked well as images on facing pages. The page sizes are generous to allow more room for reproduction. Many of them are photographs that almost anyone would want to have. Almost anyone would agree that the photographs and design of the book deserve five stars.
The accompanying texts, however, were not up to the standard of the photographs in most cases. I graded these texts on average at three stars. Averaging the two scores was how I arrived at four stars.
The book's concept is to take 500 of the best photographers ever, and show one image of each in alphabetical order. Although this sounds strange, it actually works quite well. Most of the images are in black and white, but some are in color. As a result, you get a full dimensionalizing of what photography can do and mean to the photographer and viewer.
Among the famous scenes in the book are Eddie Adams' Street Execution of a Vietcong Prisoner (1968), Neil Armstrong's Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (1969), Matthew Brady's General William Tecumseh Sherman (1865), Robert Capa's Death of a Loyalist Soldier (1936), Harold Edgerton's Milk Drop Coronet (1957), Alfred Eisenstaedt's V-J Day in Times Square (1945), Robert Jackson's The Murder of Lee Harvey Oswald (1963), Yousuf Karsh's Winston Churchill (1941), Joe Rosenthal's Iwo Jima (1945), Sam Shere's The Hindenburg Disaster (1937), and Nick Ut's Children Fleeing an American Napalm Strike (1972). If you are like me, these images brought me back to what I felt when I first saw these events or these photographs. It was a moving experience in each case. It is almost like looking at an album of your own life, once removed.
I was also moved by the many images of human pathos that I had seen less often or not at all before. Especially noteworthy to me are Abbas' South African Miners (1978), Lucien Aigner's Benito Mussolini (1935), G.C. Beresford's Leslie Stephen and his Daughter Virginia (Woolf) (1902), Margot Burke-White's Mahatma Gandhi (1946), Charles Hoff's Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano (1954), Frank Hurley's The Endurance by Night (1915), Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother (1936), and Arnold Newman's Georgia O'Keeffe (1968).
Beauty was very much present, but almost always restrained in a variety of ways. That restraint created a tension that heightened the awareness of beauty. I particularly was affected by James Abbe's Bessie Love (1928), Eve Arnold's Marilyn Monroe (1960), Richard Avedon's Dovinna and Elephants (1955), Ian Bradshaw's Streaker (1975), Robert Mapplethorpe's Derrick Cross (1983), Man Ray's Tears (1930), Lennart Nilsson's A Human Foetus at Three Months (1973), Vittorio Sella's On the Glacier Blanc (c. 1880s), Frederick Sommer's Livia (1948), Jerry Uelsmann's Floating Tree (1969), and Edward Weston's Nude on Sand (1936).
How can you further benefit from enjoying these images? I suggest that you dig out your old camera (or consider getting a new digital one), and find scenes that evoke the emotions and memories you most want. Take a few lessons from the ways the masters captured their scenes, and see what you can do. Like the student patiently painting a copy of a famous painting in a museum, you can create your own images to illuminate your life for now, for the future, and for future generations.
Turn it all into a snap!