"Kennedy to Kent State: Images of a Generation," the Worcester Art Museum's riveting survey of iconic news photos from the election of John F. Kennedy to the resignation of Richard Nixon, is one of the most depressing shows I've ever seen.
Oh, there are bright spots, like photos of the Beatles at play, Ken Kesey's Magic Bus, Neil Armstrong strolling the moon, and Sophia Loren eyeing Jayne Mansfield's remarkable, ahem, attributes. But overall, this is the '60s as the inferno of optimism, as the graveyard of liberal idealism.
Track it gunshot by gunshot. Cecil Stoughton photographs Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president in Dallas in 1963, in the tightly packed cabin of Air Force One, with Jackie Kennedy, stricken and stained with the murdered JFK's blood, at his side. Ronald Haeberle records massacred Vietnamese piled up at My Lai. Joseph Louw documents men pointing toward the assassin as Martin Luther King Jr. lies fatally bleeding on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in 1968. John Paul Filo catches a teenager screaming over her friend shot dead when National Guardsmen opened fire on anti-war protesters at Kent State in 1970.
"In a few seconds it was over and I began to photograph the wounded and dying," said Howard Ruffner, another Kent State photographer. "People kept saying, 'No pictures, don't take any pictures,' but I had to. I knew pictures were the only way to tell this story."
These photos, all given to the museum by collector David Davis, are time capsules from the last great era of photojournalism. The iconic images of our past decade, like the hooded Iraqi torture victim at Abu Ghraib, are more often than not by "amateurs." Photography — fine-art photography in particular, but photojournalism, too — is no longer so intrepid or ambitious. We are poorer for it.
Another way of seeing these photos is as the story of the conservative 1960s backlash. The rise of the American right since then is often described as a triumph of ideology and organization. But the left was fractured by civil rights and Vietnam. Its leadership was decimated by assassination, threats of jail (see: the Chicago Seven), and abuse of power by Nixon and company. You might say the right won power the old-fashioned way: eliminating its opponents.
"KENNEDY TO KENT STATE" :: Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St, Worcester :: Through February 3 :: 508.799.4406 or worcesterart.org
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