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Weekly Alibi Traveling Artsman; This Stuff's Made in NY

By Kelle Shillaci

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  Here's a whimsical idea for a photo book as we approach the end of the twentieth century: a retrospective of photography in the twentieth century--kinda like the year in pictures, only spanning the last 100 years. Genius! Of course, the century has yet to draw to a close, so we can be certain this won't be the last book on the subject. It is, however, the first of its kind to hit my desk. Only it seems that Jeffrey beat the pack by hastily cramming 220 photos from the last 153 years into 10 overlapping themes: Adventures, Frontiers, Metropolis, War, The Good Earth, Reportage, Fashion, Sports, Landscape and Portraits.

These categories are the crux of the book's many problems. Given his selection of photos, he could have just as easily distributed the same images evenly within three subjects: Commies, Vehicles and Other. But more troublesome is the absence of basic photographic themes, such as Nature, Industrial, Studio, Art, Erotica. By adhering to more definitive topics, he could have avoided redundancies and contradictions. Instead, we see test explosions of atomic bombs in both Frontiers and War. We see portraits in every chapter except Landscape. We see a 1962 photo taken from a TV screen; yet, 100-odd pages later, a 1975 photo taken from a TV screen credits its photographer for being the first to recognize that relevant photos can be taken from TV screens. That can only mean: a) the 1962 photo is irrelevant; b) its anonymous photographer failed to see the relevance when he took the picture; or c) Jeffrey and Co. were in such a damn hurry to get this book out before anyone else that they allowed for exceedingly sloppy and vacuous text.

If you picked c), you're probably right. This is because mostly what we see is a lot of mediocre photos accompanied by self-indulgent, unconvincing explanations on why these images should represent twentieth-century photography.

Captions have been embellished with the author's interpretations of the photographer's intent. For example, a caption for a 1994 photo reads: "A representative man rises from a building site." It goes on to say that the man represents the Resurrection or Icarus, then credits the photographer for rediscovering ancient icons in everyday life.

However, when the same picture appeared two years ago in an issue of DoubleTake magazine, the caption stated what it clearly was: "Christmas tree delivery ... 1993." The photographer went on to explain that he just liked to take pictures close to home, and that he's especially pleased when a picture evokes a sense of "mystery." Apparently, he should now be ecstatic with the mystery of how Jeffrey was capable of such fanciful extrapolations, and why he felt it necessary to slap them on other people's work.

Maybe it's his postmodern prerogative to place a viewer's reaction above the artist's intent. Problem is, when he applied this rule to such a vast collection of photos, he ended up forcing photographers into categorical trends, rather than celebrating their individual artistic visions. As a result, one must wonder whether this is the way photography evolved, or if it's just a way of satisfying a historian's constructive impulse to create order and meaning from a world too big to fit under 10 neat headings.

I can think of six different ways to avoid the confusion this book spawns. Limiting the field of study would be at the heart of at least four. Jeffrey seemed unable to limit himself to planet Earth, with pictures from four miles beneath the sea to 93 million miles out in space. He included X-rays, daguerreotypes, autochromes and a frame from a 16mm movie camera.

By the same token, Jeffrey deserves credit for an ambitious undertaking. He did come up with a format more imaginative than the standard chronological revival of familiar photos. He threw in a couple of great shots of New Mexico. And, at times, he managed to string moments together to create extraordinary sequences. For these alone, the book is worth seeing. But taken as a whole, one must consider that only so much of the universe can fit within 224 pages. And then one can only wonder what was left out. (Watson-Guptill, cloth, $35)


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