Two ways of picturing America

A Day in the Life of America, by Rick Smolan and David Cohen. New York: Collins Publishers. 272 pp. $39.95. Two hundred award-winning photojournalists, including nine Pulitzer Prize winners from the United States and 28 other countries, took part in the celebrated production of ``A Day in the Life of America.''

They used one of the most effective gimmicks in journalism, pouncing on a subject for a day. The day was May 2, 1986. Many will consider the results enjoyable: 24 hours of photographs from nearly every one of the United States.

The list of the 16-member picture editing team includes some of the most respected names in photo-journalism today.

They are picture editors from such prestigious publications and photo agencies as Time, Newsweek, Stern, Sygma, Black Star, National Geographic, and The London Sunday Times.

This is the fifth in a series of successful books using the same title theme. The first was Australia, followed by Hawaii, Canada, and Japan. In this case, though heavily sponsored by businesses, there is no obvious theme, nor any obvious intent to pull any punches.

The bulk of the photographs are vignettes of American life, such as a Norman Rockwellian family dinner or a pause at the New York Stock Exchange, wherein hectic trading is set aside while everyone smiles for the birdie.

One shot is of an actual crime of mugging, another of a beggar with a sign requesting help. Almost like touching bases, other subjects include the abortion issue, illegal immigration, American Indians enjoying a swim, some pretty girls in costume for a Hare Krishna sponsored dance, and even prison scenes.

Finally, there is a mass portrait of the 200 photojournalists waving their complimentary Nikon cameras, three huge banners of the Stars and Stripes dominating the scene.

At a gathering of the National Press Photographers recently, Sam Abell, who is listed as a participant in the project said, ``This is totally a commercial effort ... it is making people rich.''

Making a profit is as American as apple pie, but in certain public realms, there is something that doesn't like the smack of commercialism, that wants honesty.

The cover, for instance, is composed of simple elements. There is a horse, a mounted cowboy, a moon, and a tree. The Dutch photographer Frans Lanting shot the scene in wide angle, says Mr. Abell. And yet it adorns the cover as a vertical.

It, and he, and the reader have been manipulated. One Day USA: A Self-Portrait of America's Cities, edited by Richard and Judith Carver. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 256 pp. $35.

A sharp contrast to the much-publicized photo book with a similar general theme, ``One Day USA,'' is hitting the market at the same time.

Sponsored by the United States Conference of Mayors, 200 American cities each held a photo contest of photographs made on March 20, 1985. Thousands of photographers competed. The results were culled by anonymous photographic and design professionals.

There is a ring of honesty about this book, with homespun qualities likely to win the hearts of those who root for the underdog. Each city participating was guaranteed at least one photo in the book - after that they picked the best for overall balance. The quality varies. There's a lot of architecture, a few clich'es, some kids, flowers, and even an all-night diner. R.Norman Matheny is a Monitor staff photographer.

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