Two books--one big, one small--offer engaging looks back.

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated December 17, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST


  • Book

The end of the century can’t get here soon enough for readers with limited shelf space. Bookstore tables are piled high with oversize tomes definitively surveying the past hundred, if not thousand, years: Letters of the Century, ESPN SportsCentury. From a Time Inc. sister magazine comes LIFE: Our Century in Pictures; from a highly respected national newspaper there’s The New York Times Century of Business and The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.

Read all of them if you’ve got time on your hands, by all means, but if you don’t, two volumes— as different from each other as David and Goliath —may be all you need to know everything you need to know: Century, a grand and grandiose collection of more than 1,000 photographs documenting a hundred years of world history as seen through the eyes of photojournalists; and The Look of the Century, a compact, tightly edited dictionary of a hundred years of man-made style and design in everything from toothbrushes to baby carriages. Taken together, the pair constitutes a crash course in everything our 20th-century forebears were capable of creating when they put their creative minds to it, and what could, and did, befall them when sometimes they did not.

Of course, to take them together, you’d need a forklift. Century alone fills 1,120 pages, is almost four inches thick, and weighs 13 pounds. (The book comes with its own plastic carrying handle just to get the thing home.) The project is edited by Bruce Bernard, a veteran British magazine photo editor whose own author picture is, Englishly, not a photo at all but a portrait of himself painted by Lucian Freud, and whose prose tends toward the twitty. (”Those over a certain age might deduce correctly that when very young I much enjoyed the great British pocket magazine Lilliput,” he pip-pips.) But the sheer colossal scope of the assembled stills is decisive proof that the 19th-century invention of photography, refined and advanced in the 20th century beyond imagining, has profoundly and forever changed human comprehension of the physical world, and self-knowledge as well.

Organized in chapters given such flowery headings as ”High Hopes and Recklessness” and ”Self-Inflicted Wounds Remain Infected,” and with accompanying (flowery, typo-prone) historical background, Century juxtaposes big moments and everyday scenes, most of them candid rather than composed and shot by workaday photojournalists rather than art photographers. Any one picture —of workers and soldiers, prisoners and celebrities, politicians and corpses —invites long contemplation, just studying the eyes of a century of humanity. Any 20 are almost more than the mind can take in at a sitting. A 1919 photo of a lynching in Nebraska is nearly unbearable to look at yet demands attention; a casual 1979 shot of Pope John Paul II on a windy day in New York City is airy and charming.

Century is a stirring way to see the 20th c. out and welcome in the 21st, but it’s the opposite of portable. (It may be the first coffee-table book with the potential to crush your coffee table.) The Look of the Century, on the other hand, while not exactly a pocketbook, is the kind of totable, attractively designed browse of a volume that works well in any room of the house. This is appropriate, because the compendium, written by Michael Tambini, is about the stuff found in Western rooms over the past hundred years —bowls, telephones, shoes, bicycles —and how they got to look and work and signify the way they do.

The choices are highly selective, but effective, too. To study a Coca-Cola bottle, remarkably unchanged in design since 1915, or a 1933 Anglepoise desk lamp, still a modern classic, is to understand how the inanimate stuff of our century has affected how we lead our lives as surely and as profoundly as war and peace have. We stand on the threshold of a new century, excited by technological newness but nostalgic for the familiarity of a design aesthetic from the past. Using computers and credit cards, we buy massive books of old photos edited, reproduced, manufactured, and distributed by modern means unimaginable to the people in those pictures. We check our Swatch watches (first marketed in 1983) and realize: The countdown to 2000 has begun!

We buy new bookcases and hope for the best. Century: B+ The Look of the Century: B+

By: Bruce Bernard
$49.95, Phaidon

The Look of the Century
By: Michael Tambini
$16.95, DK


  • Book
  • Phaidon Press