If a picture is worth a thousand words, the book 100 Photographs : The Most Influential Images of Our Time is worth more than a hundred thousand. A Time publication, it offers readers a valuable retrospective of our lives and times. Many of the photographs we have seen before; I myself recall seeing at least 80 of them at one time or another and being deeply impressed by them. You too will remember many, if not most, of them.
The format of the book is simple. The photographs are on the right hand pages and opposite each, on the left hand page, is a description of the circumstances in which it was taken, its historical significance and its back story. While the photographs are rivetting, the stories behind them are no less interesting. This is a book to be read, not merely looked at.
The photographs themselves are divided into three broad categories _ Icons, Evidence and Innovation. Under Icons, there are such memorable images as ” Lunch Atop a Skyscraper”. It shows 11 construction workers casually eating lunch or reading newspapers while perched on the narrow beam of a skyscraper under construction, their legs dangling over 800 feet of air. Just looking at the photo gives me vertigo. Other photos in this category include Winston Churchill’s portrait by Karsh of Ottawa, Betty Grable’s saucy pinup pose which gladdened the hearts of GIs during WWII, Flag Raising on Iwo Jima and Babe Ruth’s farewell appearance at Yankee Stadium. Under Evidence, we have searing images such as Burning Monk ( the self immolation of a Buddhist Monk protesting the Vietnam war), Jewish Boy surrenders in Warsaw, Saigon Execution and A Man on the Moon. Some of these in Somalia, Biafra, Iran, Vietnam and Iraq are so disturbing that I had to quickly turn the page. In the last category, Innovation, there are pictures of Salvador Dali’s hijinks, an X-Ray of the Hand of Mrs. William Rontgen, the First Cell Phone picture and the Oscars selfie. While I understand the iconic nature of the photographs in this section, I found them less compelling than the others.
All hundred photos though are ” important”, chronicling as they do important moments in the human experience. The photographers who took them constitute a virtual Who’s Who of photography. They include Margaret Bourke White, Robert Capa, Karsh of Ottawa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Avedon and Edward Steichen.
The book is notable not only for the photographs but for their back stories and the feelings and emotions that they evoke. For instance, ” Country Doctor” shows Dr. Ernest Ceriani of Kremmling, CO walking home through a weed strewn lot after a hard day of home visits. Looking at the stark photograph, you can see how bone-tired the doctor is, sense his dedication and innate goodness. You know that no matter how exhausted he is, he will be making his rounds again tomorrow. This is a man who loves what he does; he is not in it for the money.” VJ Day in Times Square” shows a sailor who has grabbed a nurse, bending her back and planting a passionate kiss on her lips. The moment captures perfectly the sense of exuberance and relief that the war was at long last over.
Sometimes the descriptions correct long held impressions. ” Saigon Execution” shows the South Vietnamese chief of police firing a bullet through the head of a bound prisoner. The photo symbolized the brutality of war and galvanized American public opinion against the Vietnam war. What I did not know, and what the book reveals, was that the prisoner was the leader of a terrorist squad that that had just killed the family of one of the police chief’s friends. This is not to excuse the chief’s action but it provides the context for it.
Sometimes, my feelings were at variance with widely held views. One such photograph is ” Muhammed Ali vs. Sonny Liston” It shows the 23-year old Ali towering over Liston whom he has just kayoed and taunting him ” Get up and fight, sucker”. As the write-up explains, the ” perfectly composed image captures Ali radiating the strength and poetic brashness that made him the nation’s most beloved and reviled athlete”. True enough, but what I also remember is that there have been persistent rumors that the fight was fixed, that Liston played dead after a phantom blow to the chin. To my mind, the photo also captures Ali’s arrogance and the cruelty he displayed particularly in a later fight with Ernie Terrell.
This book will evoke myriad emotions in its readers… nostalgia, exhilaration, pity, fear, awe, anger, loathing and disgust. But above all, it will arouse a feeling of wonder at the vagaries of human behavior.
You can see the entire project at http://www.TIME.com/100photos.