THERE ARE TWO kinds of photographs: dead and alive. Li Zhensheng’s, from China in the late 1960s, are dead; Jack Birns’s, taken in China in the late 1940s, still live.
The reasons are simple: despite some self-justification and clain1s of heroism, Mr Li, a devout follower of Mao during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), was an official photographer, conditioned to send a political message in almost every frame he took. Most of his pictures, with a few horrific exceptions, are posed, as he admits. Yale Professor Jonathan Spence, who must know better, asserts in his introduction that these pictures are unique. This is hype; I have seen their like many times.