My fears are not without reason. I've taken my parents' Life magazine into my room to read because the story of the death of Peter Fechter is making me cry. I stare over and over at pictures of him, 18 and handsome, dressed up and looking into the camera. Then the photos of him lying mortally wounded against the bleakness of the recently erected Berlin Wall, shot in the stomach by East Berlin soldiers as he made a run for the wall, a bid for freedom, the final act of his young life. I think of a watermelon I'd once seen fall off a moving truck, and how it broke on the dull gray ribbon of road, its tender pink meat exposed, its seeds of life spilling out. I hide the magazine under my bed until it is swept out and thrown away during our move the following summer to New Orleans but the image of Peter Fechter will live with me all my life.
For book publishing, the mandate to document is accelerating. There's the look at a decade (Rolling Stone: The '70s), a year (1968: Magnum Throughout the World), a subculture (Fabulous! A Photographic Diary of Studio 54), or a century (The American Century). There's a study of our children (Seen and Heard), sports heroes (Boxing Greats), and our most private turf (The Book of the Bath). Faces and places.
This is the first year that seems appropriate for all those fin de siècle books to begin pouring forth from publishers, while people argue when the new century really begins and others live in fear of Y2K. Even if another world-shattering event such as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales (which made all those other pre-1997 fin de siècle books obsolete) or another U.S. war, the floodgates are open. And so what is more appropriate for an opening but The American Century by Harold Evans (Knopf, $50 hard), a book about the closing of an era. Evans, known as the editorial director of the U.S. News & World Report and Atlantic Monthly (and married to former New Yorker editor Tina Brown), has presented an epic work of text that accompanies over 900 photographs, all black & white. It's idealogically conservative, no surprise, but it is those images that remain fixed. The Panama Canal being cut in 1913, the eight Scottsboro boys staring dull-eyed at the camera, the glamorous Kennedys, dour Winston Churchill, and then the long-forgotten memory from childhood opened like an old wound ó the photograph of Peter Fechter's body being carried in front of the Berlin Wall in 1962. The text is massive to plod through but no more so than the pictures. It's when the cover of this book is closed, however, that its message truly resonates: This is the end of a millennium.
Equally as text-heavy is Rolling Stone: The '70s, edited by Ashley Kahn, Holly George Warren, and Shawn Dahl (Little, Brown $29.95 hard) but it's a testament to the power of photography in the print media. Because Rolling Stone came of age in the Seventies, it deserves bragging rights to an era it helped shape, and does it with excellent results. The stories and the photographs from the days when RS went from quarterfold newsprint publication in black & white to magazine-style newsprint with color are as vivid as the subjects. Some stories are reprinted with hindsight commentary, like Mikal Gilmore on his brother Gary while others simply look back over the shoulder to another time, like Chrissie Hynde's recollection of being a freshman at Kent State in 1970. In its own way, Rolling Stone was Life magazine for the first stoner generation ó David Bowie, Saturday Night Fever, the Sex Pistols, Evel Knievel, disco, war ... This is a much nobler effort than Rolling Stone's phony support of women in music, for example, which seems to value style over substance.
Like The American Century, Icons of the Twentieth Century edited by Barbara Cady; photo-edited by Jean Jacques Naudet (Overlook Press, $75 hard) depends on the potency of images to illustrate 200 profiles of faces that will always be synonymous with this century. Thomas Alva Edison and Elizabeth Taylor, Duke Ellington and Marie Curie, Nelson Mandela and Edith Piaf, Jean-Paul Sartre and Helen Keller, Che Guevara and Queen Elizabeth ó these are names with which to mold a century's personality. Each of the 200 entries has a page-long biography accompanying it, giving it a bit of a yearbook feel but the lingering sense is wistful.
The year 1968 seems so dark in retrospect. Maybe it is that so much of it was captured on both film and footage and so much of that was about war and civil unrest. 1968: Magnum Throughout the World, texts by Eric Hobsbawm and Marc Weirzmann (Hazan, $49.95 hard), has a much more liberal approach than The American Century. It was the year Martin Luther King was shot, Robert F. Kennedy was shot, Andy Warhol was shot. The year of the October Revolution Square in Czechoslovakia, the jungles of Vietnam, the riots in Paris, the riots in London, the riots in Washington D.C., the riots in Mexico City, the riots in Chicago, the riots in Tokyo. 1968 bubbles over with anger ó far and few are the gentle images of the year, but then they wouldn't be so stark. Ah, but I was so much older then ....
The faces inSeen and Heard: Teenagers Talk About Their Lives by Mary Motley Kalergis (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $24.95 hard) come from a cross-section of American youth, looking out like the girl on the cover, all innocence and wonder. A little too much innocence, perhaps, or at least a little too much cloying text, especially when it concerns the children of famous parents. It helps if you know Sissy Spacek and Jack Fisk have a daughter named Schuyler or that Shura Baryshnikov is the sire of Jessica Lange and Mikhail Baryshnikov ó then the comments about growing up on movie sets make a little more sense instead of wondering if mom was the caterer. That sort of precious overcompensation of the privileged makes the stories from the down-on-their-luck kids a little suspect. While Kalgeris seems to get these fresh-faced teens to open up and talk, I still get the nagging feeling they're telling her what she wants to hear. I remember being a teenager and being suspicious of anyone adult. It was almost as bad as being a little kid.
I held Boxing Greats: An Illustrated History of the Legends of the Ring by Steve Bunce with Bob Mee (Courage Books $24.98 hard) in my hands as if it were something holy. Let me back up a bit by saying I despise the orientation of American sports toward violence and brute strength over skill and strategy, but then I watch soccer, so go figure. Boxing is at once the best and worst example of what I dislike about sports, but the photos in Boxing Greats are inarguably stunning in scope. The faces and bodies of Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Gene Tunney, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson, and Sonny Liston are awe-inspiring. Don't mistake this for just a collection of ring photos. Bunce and Mee have woven a direct narrative into the presentation, so that the history of boxing is given along with the portraits of the men who made it what it is. And they are unforgettable: Benny "Kid" Paret slumped in his corner after being hit by Emile Griffith at Madison Square Garden (he never regained consciousness and died in the hospital), Roberto Duran clocking Jesus de Esteban, Joe Frazier staring down George Foreman, Salvador Sanchez reveling after victory, and the bite of the century when Mike Tyson took off part of Evander Holyfield's ear. But boxing's once and future king is the man who came into the sport with one name and made his mark with another. When Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, the boxing world was irrevocably changed.
There's precious little text in Rejoice When You Die: New Orleans Jazz Funerals Photographs by Leo Touchet; text by Vernel Bagneris (LSU Press, $34.95 hard) despite the inclusion of Bagneris in the credits. That's not a bad thing at all, for Bagneris chooses the verses of gospel and popular songs frugally to illustrate the pages upon pages of faces. Touchet's photography is flat but arresting nonetheless. Fabulous! A Photographic Diary of Studio 54 by Bobby Miller (St. Martin's Press, $24.95 hard) captures the amyl nitrate-laced era of disco snobbery with much panache but little sentiment. The Studio 54 scene was too flashy, too shallow, too plastic to generate anything but a sense of curiosity. The faces are fabulous and the fashions are, well, so very Seventies. But disco was nothing if not just for the moment, and entrepreneur Steve Rubell knew it when he instituted Studio 54's exclusive door policy. Those moments glitter and then fade very succinctly in these photos, and they present a startling montage viewed in the book.
Most of us are lucky to get any sort of nightlife, let alone have gotten past the door at Studio 54. Even fewer of us will ever see the Riviera, much less live in one of its fabled villas. But coffee table books are designed for the armchair tourist, and a couple of hours with Great Villas of the Riviera by Shirley Johnston and Roberto Schezen (Rizzoli, $65 hard) was truly refreshing. It wasn't just the lapis ocean or the colorful tile foyers or open-air terraces with their spectacular views. It was the dreamy sense of imagination at work, so that in looking at these magnificently appointed structures, I heard the sound of the water lapping at the shore as I felt the cool tile floors on my bare feet and let the balmy breezes graze my skin. It was delicious. The experience of The Book of the Bath by Francoise de Bonneville (Rizzoli, $50 hard) was similar, but rather than a litany of dreamy bathrooms, The Book of the Bath also includes art on the subject ó a surprising amount of it, and some of it rather unusual. It is not really necessary to go into depth about why bathrooms are such private places, but it is worth noting that when people have money to spend on their homes, this is a primo room on which to spend it.
Like Great Villas of the Riviera, The Irish Home: Eclectic and Unique Interiors by Iantha Ruthven (Rizzoli, $45 hard) is like a tour of another world, this one more fey and magical. The Irish Home juxtaposes living spaces from cottage to castle and no particular one is any grander than the other. The warm woods, the heirloom touches, and the tender collecting of knickknacks makes each photo almost unreal. Small wonder that At the Edge of the World: Magical Stories of Ireland, illustrations and photographs by John Lowings (Henry Holt, $29.95 hard) reads like an appropriate companion volume, almost a fairy tale book for adults. The stories of selkies, stolen brides, lost loves, druids, and goblins are taken from folklorists like Lady Wilde and Lady Gregory and marvelously illustrated by Lowings' gentle photographs of the Irish countryside and waterways. It seems like such a magical place, and the experience of being able to visit them, even in the comfort of a chair at home, is a great privilege indeed.
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