Charles Saatchi’s new book of photos makes me feel sick

A review of Known Unknowns, by Charles Saatchi. An old-fashioned chamber of horrors in the mould of Ripley’s Believe It or Not

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

13 September 2014

9:00 AM

Known Unknowns Charles Saatchi

Booth-Clibborn Editions, pp.480, £25, ISBN: 9781861543608

Charles Saatchi, the gallery owner, has created his own Chamber of Horrors in this thick, square book, ‘inspired by striking photographs’. One of the most successful of these is a black and white image of male and female figures: ‘Gruesome and gaunt, they look like extras from an early piece of zombie cinema.’ They are, it soon becomes clear, oddments saved by firemen from a blaze at Madame Tussauds in 1925. Madame Tussaud, the author reminds us, ‘would ‘tiptoe through the piles of corpses behind the guillotine to discover the most illustrious of the heads, and would promptly make casts of them, her hands bathed in their blood’.

Each little chapter of Known Unknowns begins with a photograph and a headline in capitals and small letters, such as ‘WIN a DATE with a RAPIST SERIAL KILLER’, which concerns Rodney Alcala, who appeared on the American show The Dating Game in 1978. A decade earlier he had been ‘spotted luring an eight-year-old girl into his apartment’. Later ‘the girl was found raped and beaten with a steel bar’. On The Dating Game, ‘Alacala won a date with beauty queen Cheryl Bradshaw, who subsequently said she found him “creepy” and refused to go out with him.’ Alcala is now in prison, and detectives have ‘estimated he could have murdered anywhere between 50 and 100 women’.

To give an idea of the ground covered in the 99 short chapters, here are eight of the headings (reduced to conventional ortho-graphy) and quotations from the accompanying text:

Ladies who like a ladykiller. ‘Why do psychopathic killers behind bars routinely get postbags full of love letters and marriage proposals?’

Down the drain: ‘Police officers knocked at Nilsen’s door and told him his drains were full of human remains.’

The jilted bride [opposite a photo, reproduced overleaf, of a woman in a bride’s dress, held round the neck by a man]. ‘She was miraculously caught and saved by a local care worker, who grabbed her around the neck as she fell, her body dangling above the sheer drop.’

A trainee bodyguard in China gets a bottle smashed across her head. ‘She is one of 20 female recruits, mostly university graduates, who are expected to stand unflinchingly as a bottle is broken to shards on their heads.’

Better to kill yourself than be gang-raped and murdered [opposite a picture of a woman’s corpse on the street of, presumably, Berlin, in 1945]. ‘Over two million women across the region were violently raped, with many suffering multiple attacks, and left for dead … Women also turned on one another, with mothers giving up the hiding places of other women’s daughters in order to save their own.’

Sioux Indians kept his scalp, but Robert McGee kept his life [opposite a picture of a man with the back of his skull exposed].

The hanging of Mary [opposite a blurred photograph of an elephant hanging from a crane]. ‘In 1916 a circus elephant nicknamed “Murderous Mary” was hanged in Kingsport, Tennessee.’

Before they transplanted a human heart, they transplanted a dog’s head [opposite an Alsatian with another dog’s head grafted on to it by Russian scientists]. ‘Protests [against vivisection] began as early as 1655, when prominent scientist Edmund O’Meara said “the miserable torture places the animal’s body in an unnatural state, hence the affects [sic] of pain on the animal being examined render the results of any research null and void”.’

That is not, of course, 17th-century English. O’Meara, reputedly the last physician to uphold the ideas of Galen, wrote in Latin, but Saatchi does not say whether it is his own translation.

I think this gives the territory and the flavour. Neither are at all pleasant. They made me feel queasy. There are more photos of corpses (clothing workers dead in a fire; a train-robber dead in his coffin; Russians killed in a stampede); photos of Hitler, a Japanese Mengele, a woman in the electric chair, the last public hanging in America, Charles Manson, the inside of Jeffrey Dahmer’s fridge, a pair of shoes made from human skin, and a doctor removing his own appendix. Clearly, like all of us perhaps, the author needs help.

As with Saatchi’s last picture book, The Naked Eye, the design is strangely awkward. The most pleasing gimmick is to have in red capitals the word ‘Known’ on the top and bottom page-edges and ‘Unknown’ on the fore-edge. The reference is obvious, its import obscure.

One photograph not related to pain and death seemed interesting as a photograph: men spaced along the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge during its repainting in 1914. There is otherwise little information about dates, or photographers. The curiously old-fashioned tone of this volume lies between the grimmer pages of Reveille and Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

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Show comments
  • Liz

    “Ladies who like a ladykiller. ‘Why do psychopathic killers behind bars routinely get postbags full of love letters and marriage proposals?”


  • David Robert Best

    Dyslexic, lazy or just not edited … ?

    I was given a hard-bound copy of ‘Known Unknowns’ by Charles Saatchi for Christmas. I was delighted by the gift, the idea behind the book, the originality of the approach …. that is until I started to actually read the thing.

    I cannot believe that in 2014 a publisher can launch a book in this state. Did nobody at Booth-Clibborn Editions actually read the thing before it went to press for God’s sake ? (or even afterwards for that matter).

    The deception starts with a howler in line five on the first page of the book … “… her body cushioned the fall of her young daughter, allowing HIM to miraculously survive”. Hello !!! (and yes, I’m purposely ignoring the split infinitive – lest I be judged a pedant). It goes on like this, page after page after page. A couple more examples : “The fire was fierce enough for teams of firefighters needing a further ten hours to extinguish the flames” (page 19) – and rather topically, “… where religious fundamentalism and its adherence globally is a feverishly held conviction” (page 27).

    This is more than just bad editing – it’s non-existant editing … and sadly it gets in the way of an otherwise rather original book (although it has to be said that it’s a bit of an opinionated rant – long on viewpoints and short on facts – and overall something of a soap-box for Charles Saatchi’s numerous conspiracy theories).

    But am I missing a joke here ? Is it an example of some sort of new artistic movement or something ? I’ve struggled to get as far as page 28 and frankly I’m not sure I can make it any further. I’ve already found more than 15 appalling grammatical errors, indecipherable English, and page after page of plain poor writing. To sum up, it reads as though it’s been written in Hebrew by an Albanian ghost-writer with a train to catch – and then translated into English by pasting the whole book into Google Translate.

    In passing I’m also going to take a shot at the literary critics – I’ve just Googled the book and in the various critical reviews (including the most viewed one in The Spectator) there’s not one mention of the appalling writing or non-existant editing. Now what’s that about ?

    What a pity. I expected much better.