THE GREAT vehicle of photojournalism, Life, Look, Paris Match, Picture Post are either long gone or changed utterly. But illustrated books and exhibitions happily keep in circulation many of the still photographs that shape the memories of this century.
Now seen as isolated images, the best of them were originally produced as part of a picture story. The photographers pursued the decisive moment all right, but without the leisure to hang around hoping a great image might fall into place. Even so, where the great ones were concerned, frame after frame, shot as documentation, were fine enough to print a full negative and fill a spread.
Among the greatest is Alfred Eisenstaedt whose retrospective collection of photographs going back more than a half century is the pick of the pictorial basket this year. By big, fat, rich square book standards Eisenstaedt: Remembrances (Little, Brown, $40), edited by Doris O'Neill, is a slender volume. Samples of Eisenstaedt's work are not new in book form, but this collection has been fondly and knowingly culled from thousands of images by O'Neill, for years doyenne of Life's picture collection, and given a brief affectionate preface by designer Bryan Holme.
Eisenstaedt was one of the four original photographers on the old Life, starting in 1936. But he had been a pioneer in 35-mm available-light candid photography well before that in Germany and is still photographing today at age 92, mostly on Martha's Vineyard. One of the first pictures in the book shows Thomas Mann accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. Soon after comes a revealingly nasty glimpse of Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, taken in Geneva in 1933, and then a candid shot of an Italian officer in a fancy hat, getting his nails manicured. That one outraged Mussolini when it was published in 1934, just before Il Duce's infamous assault on Abyssinia.
Some images are already almost as famous, and as predictably included, as the Mona Lisa. The sailor kissing the girl in Times Square on V-J Day in 1945, for instance, and the string of urchins prancing after a high-stepping cheerleader in Ann Arbor in 1950. Some are new, to me at least, though I worked at Life for years and with Eisenstaedt on a number of assignments. Best example: A wonderfully disconsolate Senator Robert Taft holding a scrawny gift chicken in New Hampshire during his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1952.
The surprise, though, is the range and quality of the portraits. Winston Churchill, of course. Ditto for Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, Jacqueline Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. But also nearly every writer you've ever heard of from Hemingway and Gunter Grass to W.H. Auden and Tennessee Williams. Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Judge Learned Hand, theologian Martin Buber, all in a sense bracketed by Carole Lombard (1938) and Mikhail Baryshnikov (1979).
Michael Ruetz's France and Germany (Little, Brown, $60 each) offer pictures from all over France, from all over Germany. Hugely reproduced, usually across a 30-inch spread, sometimes as foldouts of 42 inches. Feast your eyes on your favorite cathedral or chateau. Count the tiles in the red roofs of riverside towns. Sink into the deep greens of fields and the dark of forests.
Other than the price and the size of each volume there are some risks. Hereafter mere postcards may seem too insignificant to bother with. You may even stop taking pictures yourself. And after a while a viewer begins to wonder why (and how?) Ruetz gets all these pictures without having a single human figure appear -- at even the size of an ant.
Sylvia Plachy's Unguided Tour (Aperture. $39.95) throws in quotes from Rilke and Thomas Mann, from Borges and Peter Handke, presents a totally random series of images, many of them personal, and offers blurbs from Richard Avedon who says "I've never met her but now I have her book," and Agnes Varda who says "She is a warm camera."
It sounds simply awful. Instead it is charming, a bit like looking at the family album of a friend who travels a lot, takes daring pictures better than anyone you know, and genially avoids the kind of pretentiousness that so often afflicts books of this sort. There are some funny pictures, and some arresting images, among them a night shot of a golf driving range, with a head the late Ayatolla Khomeini, blown up four feet broad and used as the target 100 yards from the tee.
Sylvia Plachy is a Village Voice photographer who had to be smuggled out of Budapest in 1956 at age 13. She often travels back to Hungary and the mixture of old and new world views provides a pleasantly split personality.
"Thanks to the wide-angle lens," William Klein writes, "I was able to feed my devouring hunger for faces, bodies, crowds." That was in 1954, before Klein, who started as a painter, took a decade or so off to become a prize-winning film maker. In 1980 he took up still pictures seriously again, once more wide-angling away wherever crowds gather.
Close Up (Thames and Hudson, $45) is largely the result. It consists in 80 spectacular and often compelling black-and-white pictures, each run for a double truck and bled off the pages top, sides and bottom, hermetically sealing the viewer in Klein's vision. The scene shifts from religious festival to rock concert, from political rally to prize fights and the start of marathons, from Paris and the Senegal to Coney Island. Some of the crowds include celebrities -- Mohammed Ali, for instance, after knocking out George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.
Klein is a marvelous, wide-angle black and white candid photographer. If you share his hunger for faces and bodies and crowds, Close Up may be just the thing. But the often dramatic impact of these pictures soon becomes repetitive -- their cumulative effect is dislike of, rather than affection for, humanity. Reading it is a bit like being locked up in crowd scene by Hieronymous Bosch.
William Shawcross has noted that fortunate people from Europe and America who work with the starving and oppressed in dry and distant lands, as he has done, and even the rest of us beside the comfortable coffee tables where this book is likely to wind up, begin to suffer from what, with only slight irony, he describes as "compassion fatigue."
This is not Sebastiao Salgado's condition. A Brazilian-born economist turned Magnum photographer, he has won a flock of artistic and journalistic awards recording, in astonishingly beautiful but almost unbearable photographs the work of the world and the pain of the world, most recently the children starving to death by the thousands in the Sehel region of Ethiopia during the 1984-85 drought. An Uncertain Grace (Aperture, $60) with pictures that have just started a year's tour of the United States as an exhibition, is the result.
No need to describe them; in this case one picture is worth a thousand words. But it will take a heart of stone to study Salgado's images without some moments of shock and awe, without at least a fleeting thought of the family of man. THE HORN of Africa is a chunk of land many times larger than Texas, that hooks out into the Indian Ocean just below the Gulf of Aden, extends south to Kenya and includes Ethiopia, Somalia, and the tiny French enclave of Djibouti. For African Ark (Abrams, $60) photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher spent five years traveling and living there, visiting what used to be called primitive tribes. Among these were a community of Ethiopian Christians who claim descent from the son that (by trickery) King Solomon got upon the Queen of Sheba, some Islamic Rift Valley tribesmen whose motto is "Better to die than to live without killing," and the last people in Africa whose unmarried women wear lip-stretching mouth pieces, the size indicating how large a marriage fee their fathers will demand.
One begins with a feeling that the world may not need any more color photographs of National Geographicized Africans dancing and body painting and scarifying and beating each other with sticks. Toward the end the accumulation of stylish portraits featuring costume and jewelry makes one regret Beckwith's fleeting association with Vogue. But most of the 240 color illustrations are startlingly beautiful and informatively captioned. Journalist-author Graham Hancock's no-nonsense text supports them the way a male dancer supports a ballerina. All in all African Ark is an often dazzling blend of anthropology and art.
In a very real sense this is the Eastman Kodak Company's 100th birthday present to itself. But not in any sense a self-indulgence. In fact for anyone with photography in the blood, or Christmas in view, it is probably the one book to have if you're having only one.
There is something for everyone. The story of the company and how frugal George Eastman made it grow. The history of cameras, of film, of photographers and really, of photography itself. Douglas Collins is not sprightly, but his text is clear and compendious. More than I'll ever understand about ambrotyupes and tintypes, about wet collodian and the glass-plate process and how much Matthew Brady got from the war department for the negatives to his Civil War photographs ($2,840, later raised to $25,000 through the kindness of President Garfield). And so on up to the special kind of film Kodak made so the U-2 could photograph the U.S.S.R. from 60,000 feet.
Appropriately enough, it is the pictures themselves, legions of them with splendidly detailed captions, that carry you along. Over the decades, exposed by famous professionals and harried housewives who pressed the button and let Kodak do the rest, they are an education. They clearly show how the photograph, still and motion picture alike, has come to reflect the landmarks of our growing up, drawing together all the threads (including photography itself) of modern life. Do not call it art, of course. But do call it history. Timothy Foote is an editor for Smithsonian Magazine.