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A Look Into China's Faces

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF CHINA Edited by David Cohen, Afterword by David DeVoss, San Francisco:

Collins Publishers, 224 pp. $45.

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THE Collins series of ``Day in the Life'' books (this is the eighth) is founded on the idea, some might say gimmick, that if you turn loose a phalanx of photographers in a country, and collect what they shoot in a given 24-hour period, you will have some sort of statement about the place and the people. In some places, the days are a bit dull. But in this book the idea succeeds mightily.

The day chosen was April 15, l989. The project began years before. As the book was going to press, the changes coming over the Chinese government, which resulted in the Tiananmen Square massacre were building slowly. April 15 itself was propitious: Former Communist Party Chief Hu Yaobang died. Hu had been removed from office two years earlier after being for some time a proponent of greater individual liberty. Government reports of circumstances of his death were widely distrusted. Placards of protest began to appear in Beijing. And, writes David DeVoss, ``The turmoil had begun.''

The photographers, 90 of the world's most accomplished, shot 140,000 pictures in the one day. From these, nearly 200 color and black and white prints were selected for the book. Turning the pages, you get the feeling that behind the camera these photographers had a prescience that change was coming. More than anything else, the cameras look into the faces of the people of China. The result tempers the horrific reactions Westerners may retain from television coverage of the crackdown months later.

Here, in this one flawlessly printed book, is the immensity, the grandeur, and the truly indescribable beauty of the country. Here are the monstrous rivers and tiny babies, the huge sweep of the land and the intriguing corners of the cities, the pristine wilderness and the crowded smoky industrial sections. Politics seems to fade away before the challenge of responding to the Chinese as a people, regardless of their government.

It is hard to overstate the impact that pictures can have when the skill of the photographers aligns with a major curve in the road of history. We will look more closely at this book now and pay attention to the details, especially as we wait for the next indication of where China is going. The book is well-organized, with map legends in the corner of nearly every page so you know where you are.

The book project was aided by corporate sponsors, including Kodak, which gave cameras to 200 schoolchildren around the country. One page includes the wonderful results. Also sponsoring were two government publishing houses, who then requested the exclusion of certain pictures and writing, after the June 3 crackdown. The request was denied, but a disclaimer is included. Left in is a picture of Deng Xiaoping, also taken on the evening of April 15. He is sitting at home with his wife on a Saturday night, playing contentedly with his grandson.

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