As a child — shy, bookish, obscurely discontented with my lot and fairly certain that something more interesting lay elsewhere, chronologically if not geographically speaking — there was little I loved more than curling up in an armchair in some half-lit room, seeking escape from the supposed inadequacy of ordinary things through the pages of really good picture-book.
My sense of ‘really good’ was, admittedly, eclectic and gappily critical. At the time, so immaculate was my intellectual innocence that I accepted as mere point-and-shoot accuracy, for instance, the hard-won Neo-Romantic dreaminess of Bill Brandt’s photography in Literary Britain (1951) without consciously noting its function as both commentary and criticism of that other picture-book favourite of mine, an enormous volume of photographic images of the Second World War, a topic broadly construed as taking in everything from Nanking to the Berlin Blockade, the not-yet-revivable glamour of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth co-existing as a matter of fact alongside incomprehensible if unforgettable visions of burning cities, tangles of broken and tortured bodies — a rich if unruly grammar of visual imagery not entirely tamed, if memory serves, by the broadly reassuring commentary of its post-war American editors on what was, at least in the mid 1970s, America’s ‘good’ war, to be recalled and even celebrated in the context of more recent and problematic conflicts. Or so I remember thinking at the time. (Perhaps, on reflection, I wasn’t as innocent as all that.)
But of course there was more to my canon of picture books, even in those days, than moody mid-century photography. Continue reading