When typing this book title I mistakenly added a letter and made it plural. ‘Civilizations’ would suggest a book of broader reach that gives due recognition to the different cultures and societies that inhabit the planet. Yet authors William Ewing and Holly Roussell have chosen a singular definition for this tome and turned to the works of over 140 photographers for their interpretations of civilisation in its Western guise.
Furthermore, the book’s sub-title, ‘The Way We Live Now’, borders on the presumptuous, implying that these finely crafted pages illustrate an age that is immediately identifiable to all of us, or at least relevant to our lives.
But let’s not get bogged down in semantics; Civilization remains an admirable and ambitious undertaking. Ultimately, this is a ‘statement art’ photo book – 485 images in total – assembled and arranged across 350 pages by two of the fine art photography world’s most esteemed curators. Understandably therefore, the text plays a secondary role with single-page essays introducing each chapter, followed by a collection of quotes from some of the contributing photographers. The variety and depth of imagery arranged by Ewing and Roussell across eight thematic chapters succeeds in engaging our curiosity and intellect in equal measure. However, it is also surprisingly devoid of emotion – despite the diversity of subject matter, many of the photographs look homogeneously lit and processed. From the offices of power to the weapons of war, subjects are framed in a clean, precise lighting as finely contained and manicured as a weedless Stepford front lawn.
Although Civilization could stand effortlessly on its merits, there can be no doubting that Ewing and Roussell had their eyes diverted to the needs of the accompanying exhibition when editing and sequencing the prints – what looks striking on the page must also look startling on the wall to well-heeled art collectors. Even Raphaël Dallaporta’s 12 still life studies of anti-personnel fragmentation and blast mines become a saleable commodity under the fine art label. Colourful, mundane, yet strange, these seemingly innocuous objects are framed like household gadgets in an online catalogue. The awful truth only becomes clear when reading the captions, as sparing in their choice of words as items of court evidence. To quote Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase from the Eichmann trial, here is ‘the banality of evil’ precisely placed for the exhibition wall.
All that said, Civilization remains a compelling collection of photographs. Although it might have been better with a touch of James Nachtwey grit and rawness, or the nuanced street photography of Alex Webb, even the black and white worlds of Sebastiâo Salgado, it nevertheless succeeds in cementing Ewing’s reputation as the first choice conductor of modern photography’s orchestral epics. Sadly, his and Roussell’s Civilization is too enthralled by man’s achievements, to pay attention to the issues that threaten to destroy it.
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!