Decade

In his 1955 autobiography Surprised by Joy, the author and professor C. S. Lewis coined the phrase "chronological snobbery" to name the tendency—to which he admitted he was not immune—to overvalue the era in which we live. False or inaccurate ideas die out over time, the argument goes, so now must be the most important, most consequential era ever experienced. It's a fallacy that was on my mind as I worked my way through Decade, the hulking sequel to the bestselling (and also hulking) photographic compendium Century. That book used images by some of history's greatest photographers, such as Eugène Atget and Andre Kertész, to tell the story of modern times. This one relies largely on photojournalists to document a period we've just lived through, that is barely past at all, and to which we all have total access through the Internet.

 

Do the last ten years deserve the same attention as the previous hundred? The book does seem to overvalue the present, even though it has been an uncommonly eventful decade—in fact, a disastrous one, full of war and catastrophe, economic cataclysm, political and religious fundamentalization, and ecological ruin. (Or so it feels from where I'm sitting, at least; in Shanghai or São Paulo, things look a little bit rosier.) And ours is a time of image explosion, with more photographs circulating faster, and among more people, than ever before. If the trajectory of this new millennium remains unclear, at least we know how we will learn about it: images, specifically digital images, have become the lingua franca of global communication.

 

Eamonn McCabe, Decade's British editor, offers an admirably global perspective on the past ten years, with substantial contributions from Asia, though even after 500 images much remains left out. John Kerry and John McCain don't make it (Sarah Palin, naturally, does). Nor does Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the decade's most popular leader, who has just left the Brazilian presidency with an 87% approval rating. Nor, surprisingly, does Benazir Bhutto, though there is an image from a different bombing in Pakistan on the same day as her assassination. And how could the editor take Zinedine Zidane's epoch-defining headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final—probably the most famous image of the decade, watched live by 600 million people and endlessly replayed and analyzed—and shrink it to a few square inches, sandwiched between a Chinese building project and some volcano?

 

From an American perspective, two events bookend and define the decade: the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the financial crisis that reached its most terrifying point in the autumn of 2008. The two events share a few attributes—for a start, they both centered on the same city, indeed on the same neighborhood in the same city—but from a photographer's perspective, they are completely divergent. 9/11 is the ultimate image-event: indeed, the circulation of images of the disaster, both still and moving, was a basic part of the terrorist act. And Decade duly provides us with seven photographs of that awful day: there is the second plane hitting the south tower, then Bush turning white as an aide whispers the news, survivors running up Broadway, and finally Joel Meyerowitz's now-classic images of Ground Zero, capturing the destroyed buildings in bold chiaroscuro against the smoke and the New York night. There are also pendant images from October and November 2001, some now forgotten (anthrax in the mail) and others depressingly current (Afghanistan).

 

The financial crisis, on the other hand, was an event beyond the reach of photographers. Debts packaged blindly into complex assets, invisible networks of capital, a "shadow" banking system—these could only be captured in photographs through metonymy, such as freaked-out traders or For Sale signs on foreclosed houses. For the fall of Lehman Brothers, Decade includes two shots: one of bankers in a meeting in London's Canary Wharf, and another of an employee on his cell phone leaving the bank's New York headquarters. But the London photo is taken from street level, desperately trying to peek into the meeting several stories up, while the New York photo could have been taken on any day at all. There is little sense, in these images, of the nearness of meltdown on those days, let alone the profundity of the transformation that the crisis continues to produce.

 

For the rest of the decade, only a few other events merit multiple images: Saddam Hussein's arrest and execution, Hurricane Katrina, the Beijing Olympics, Obama's election. The rest of the decade's history is given photograph by photograph. The whole of the disputed 2009 Iranian election, for example, is reduced to one shot of protesting students holding aloft a huge green ribbon. Occasionally this insistence on just one image works well. One of the best shots in this book is of a man with a cigarette outside a Dublin pub in 2004, just after Ireland became the first country to ban smoking indoors; what once was news has now become daily life. At other times it can feel dismissive or superficial, as photojournalism can when it reduces war or disease to one screaming child, one ruined building. (I should add that many of the captions in Decade have the glib tone of a children's museum: "A rather fluorescent pig in Taipei, Taiwan, is testament to the inexorable march of progress.")

 

What's more, the editors' insistence on strict chronological order can have a scary flattening effect. The assassinated founder of Hamas is seen next to Madonna and Britney Spears; Lance Armstrong's legs stand next to a starving one-year-old in Niger. These juxtapositions recall the once fashionable, now dated theoretical conceit that all images are fictional and therefore fundamentally equal, with real life dissolved into the dimension of spectacle. But as Susan Sontag angrily insisted in Regarding the Pain of Others, her final book, such a stance "assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world." The images in these pairs are not equally important, and it's easy to feel that the editor steps into morally perilous territory by treating all images—not just photojournalism but also street photography and even, bizarrely, promotional stills from movies and TV shows—as undifferentiated elements of one giant stream.

 

Those of us now living have access on computers or phones to more images than most humans ever saw in a lifetime. Making sense of that dizzying visual proliferation would require a project that's fundamentally archival, one that attempted to capture and define our time through research, curation, analysis, and judgment. But Decade is not an archive. It's just a litany, one damn picture after another, as if the news could be elevated to history just by entering some terms into a search engine.

April 18: "[W]ould it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…?"

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