In his1955 autobiography Surprised by Joy, the author and professor C. S. Lewis coined thephrase “chronological snobbery” to name the tendency—to which headmitted he was not immune—to overvalue the era in which we live. False orinaccurate ideas die out over time, the argument goes, so now must be the mostimportant, most consequential era ever experienced. It’s a fallacy that was onmy mind as I worked my way through Decade, the hulking sequel to the bestselling (and alsohulking) photographic compendium Century. That book used images by someof history’s greatest photographers, such as Eugène Atget and Andre Kertész, totell the story of modern times. This one relies largely on photojournalists todocument a period we’ve just lived through, that is barely past at all, and towhich we all have total access through the Internet.
Do the last ten yearsdeserve the same attention as the previous hundred? The book does seem toovervalue the present, even though it has been an uncommonly eventful decade—infact, a disastrous one, full of war and catastrophe, economic cataclysm,political and religious fundamentalization, and ecological ruin. (Or so itfeels 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, withmore photographs circulating faster, and among more people, than ever before.If the trajectory of this new millennium remains unclear, at least we know howwe will learn about it: images, specifically digital images, have become thelingua franca of global communication.
EamonnMcCabe, Decade‘s Britisheditor, offers an admirably global perspective on the past ten years, withsubstantial contributions from Asia, though even after 500 images much remainsleft 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 differentbombing in Pakistan on the same day as her assassination. And how could theeditor take Zinedine Zidane’s epoch-defining headbutt in the 2006 World Cupfinal—probably the most famous image of the decade, watched live by 600 millionpeople and endlessly replayed and analyzed—and shrink it to a few squareinches, sandwiched between a Chinese building project and some volcano?
From an Americanperspective, two events bookend and define the decade: the attacks of September11, 2001, and the financial crisis that reached its most terrifying point inthe autumn of 2008. The two events share a few attributes—for a start, theyboth centered on the same city, indeed on the same neighborhood in the samecity—but from a photographer’s perspective, they are completely divergent. 9/11is 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 Decadeduly provides us with seven photographs of that awful day: there is the secondplane hitting the south tower, then Bush turning white as an aide whispers thenews, survivors running up Broadway, and finally Joel Meyerowitz’s now-classicimages of Ground Zero, capturing the destroyed buildings in bold chiaroscuroagainst the smoke and the New York night. There are also pendant images fromOctober and November 2001, some now forgotten (anthrax in the mail) and othersdepressingly current (Afghanistan).
The financial crisis, onthe other hand, was an event beyond the reach of photographers. Debts packagedblindly 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 thefall of Lehman Brothers, Decade includes two shots: one of bankers in ameeting in London’s Canary Wharf, and another of an employee on his cell phoneleaving the bank’s New York headquarters. But the London photo is taken fromstreet 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 islittle sense, in these images, of the nearness of meltdown on those days, letalone the profundity of the transformation that the crisis continues toproduce.
For the rest of the decade,only a few other events merit multiple images: Saddam Hussein’s arrest andexecution, Hurricane Katrina, the Beijing Olympics, Obama’s election. The restof the decade’s history is given photograph by photograph. The whole of thedisputed 2009 Iranian election, for example, is reduced to one shot ofprotesting students holding aloft a huge green ribbon. Occasionally thisinsistence on just one image works well. One of the best shots in this book isof a man with a cigarette outside a Dublin pub in 2004, just after Irelandbecame the first country to ban smoking indoors; what once was news has nowbecome daily life. At other times it can feel dismissive or superficial, asphotojournalism can when it reduces war or disease to one screaming child, oneruined building. (I should add that many of the captions in Decade have the glib tone of a children’smuseum: “A rather fluorescent pig in Taipei, Taiwan, is testament to theinexorable 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. Thesejuxtapositions recall the once fashionable, now dated theoretical conceit thatall images are fictional and therefore fundamentally equal, with real lifedissolved into the dimension of spectacle. But as Susan Sontag angrily insistedin Regarding the Pain of Others, her final book, such a stance “assumes thateveryone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is noreal suffering in the world.” The images in these pairs are not equallyimportant, and it’s easy to feel that the editor steps into morally perilousterritory by treating all images—not just photojournalism but also streetphotography and even, bizarrely, promotional stills from movies and TV shows—asundifferentiated elements of one giant stream.
Those of us now living haveaccess on computers or phones to more images than most humans ever saw in alifetime. Making sense of that dizzying visual proliferation would require aproject that’s fundamentally archival, one that attempted to capture and defineour 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 beelevated to history just by entering some terms into a search engine.