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Eyes of great beholders

The best visions of America

Our photography staff takes a shot at the best books of the year.

An American Century of Photography By Keith F. Davis Harry N. Abrams Inc.

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Sometimes bigger is better. And this is one of those times. "An American Century of Photography," by Keith Davis, is a huge book, folio size, 590 pages, with almost 500 large, well-printed photographs. It's 50 percent larger than the 1995 first edition, with 45 pages of footnotes and 25 pages of bibliography and index. Just a single page of type, with its double column format, has the word count of at least six pages in a John Grisham novel. So there's a lot here, but how good is it?

Very good. This is a comprehensive and authoritative survey of photography in America during this century. It discusses hundreds of photographers - from Jacob Riis to Cindy Sherman, from Alfred Stieglitz to Robert Mapplethorpe. But it also explores changing attitudes toward the medium. At the beginning of the century, the debate was whether photography could be a fine art. By the end of the century, we have museums and collectors paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire single prints and galleries that exclusively show photographs.

Best of all, this massive tome is remarkably approachable. The writing is clear and nontechnical. You needn't start at the beginning, just open it anywhere and turn a few pages. The large chapters are divided into captioned, self-contained sections of about five pages each. Or peruse the 2,500 items listed in the index for what sparks your interest.

Hallmark Cards was one of the first American corporations to establish a collection of photography in 1964. They now have a museum-quality collection of nearly 4,000 photographs. Author Davis is the Hallmark Fine Arts Program director, and his publications include books on photographers Dorothea Lange, Harry Callahan, and Clarence John Laughlin.

*Tom Toth is the Monitor's photo editor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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