Published: December 4, 2012
Thanks to the insight, vision and generosity of one man ⁄avid Davis †who lived through those eventful years, a fabulous collection of memorable photographs of America’s turbulent 1960s and 1970s is on view at the Worcester Art Museum (WAM). Showcasing 85 of the most powerful American photographs ever made, “Kennedy to Kent State: Images of a Generation” features depictions of shocking assassinations, the Vietnam War, antiwar protests, the Civil Rights movement, a growing counterculture and wonders of space exploration. It is on view through February 3.
Organized by David Acton, WAM’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs, and his assistant, Nancy Kathryn Burns, both of whom contributed to the useful catalog, the exhibition offers searing glimpses into trying times. The photographs continue to pack a wallop with viewers of all ages, as donor Davis hoped.
The pictures were originally collected by Davis, then a Provincetown art gallery owner, to recall and reflect his teenage through college years. When he started the collection, Davis says, he had no inkling that it would grow so large or be worthy of a major museum exhibition. “I had no idea of what I would learn about a troubled, yet exciting period of this country’s past, and also about myself,” he recalls.
Starting in 2000, Davis devoted a decade to tracking down period-significant prints, a task complicated by the fact that large magazine and newspaper publishers were digitizing their file photographs and discarding or giving originals away. As the trove grew, Davis says that “rather than a personal collection&⁉ decided to share the photos in the form of a larger group. I wanted the potential viewer to glimpse the period&[of] coming of age&n experience of adolescence that took place amidst the mayhem of a rapidly changing society.”
Davis’s collection reflects what he calls the “pressure cooker of tragedy and triumph, horror and honor, shock and shock value, cynicism and celebration” of his formative years, beginning with the “optimistic election” of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960. A score of photographs recall the heady and challenging days of the Kennedy administration that ended in unspeakable tragedy.
The earliest photograph shows Kennedy strolling among windswept dunes at Hyannis Port, Mass., near the family compound, in 1959, a year before his election. Nearly a score of photographs that will be familiar to all who lived through the Camelot era document everything from the Kennedy-Nixon television debates to Kennedy’s inauguration to JFK, head bowed, leaning on a desk and silhouetted against a window in the Oval Office in George Tames’s 1961 encapsulation of “The Loneliest Job in the World” to screen goddess Marilyn Monroe, in a skintight dress, provocatively singing “Happy Birthday Mr President” at a Madison Square Garden gala in 1962.
The tragic events that unfolded in Dallas on November 22, 1963, are recalled in Abraham Zapruder’s shaky snapshot of the Kennedy motorcade as the assassin’s bullets struck, and Cecil Stoughton’s heart-wrenching closeup of Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One after JFK’s death, with the grieving Jacqueline Kennedy at his side. “Our collective consciousness was shaken awake from a beautiful dream,” recalls Davis. “We looked around and saw [very] different [things] happening around us.”
Equally riveting in a different sense is newspaper photographer Robert H. Jackson’s incredible image, taken two days after the assassination, of Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shooting accused murderer Lee Harvey Oswald, Oswald recoiling in pain and surprise, as the startled sheriff looks on. Surely one of the greatest of all photojournalists’ images, it earned Jackson a Pulitzer Prize.
Other photographs track the return of JFK’s body to Washington, the flag-draped casket lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the Kennedy family walking in the funeral possession and, most poignantly, young John F. Kennedy Jr saluting as his father’s casket was loaded onto the caisson.
Davis says his “absolute favorite photo” is Bill Eppridge’s view of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. “You take a horrible event and capture a moment in time and what you have is not only an amazing example of photojournalism, but also a stunningly powerful and even ‘beautiful’ image& It is so reminiscent of a Pieta.”
The other unforgettable assassination of 1968, of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, is recalled in the famous photograph of the civil rights champion lying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, as his aides point to the source of the fatal shot, and his serene, veiled widow, Coretta Scott King, comforting their young daughter Bernice at the slain leader’s funeral. The latter, a touching image taken by Moneta J. Sleet, won the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to an African American.
Many facets of the overarching nightmare of the era, the seemingly endless Vietnam war, were recorded by freewheeling photojournalists and television crews. One of the most riveting photos in the exhibition was taken by British photojournalist Larry Burrows. It documents the violence of war up close and personal as several wounded soldiers await treatment at a muddy, chaotic first-aid station “below the DMZ.”
Two of the most important photographs of the Vietnam conflict, Eddie Adams’ snapshot of a South Vietnamese general executing a suspected Viet Cong, and Nick Ut’s photograph of terrified children fleeing a napalm attack on their village, are etched in our collective memories. “These eminent photographs are unique,” curator Burns observes, “in that both won Pulitzer Prizes, both were taken while American television crews were present and both debuted on television, not in newspapers.” Larry R. Collins, who assisted Davis in assembling the collection, says that “more than any other picture,” the Adams photo “turned public opinion against the war in Vietnam.”
America’s ignominious departure from Vietnam, when helicopters had to land on the roof of the besieged US embassy in Saigon to rescue American personnel and Vietnamese allies, was captured in a dramatic 1975 photo by Hugh Van Es. On a happier note, Sal Veder’s “Burst of Joy,” shows four exuberant youngsters and their mother racing across a tarmac to reunite with their father/husband, a returning Vietnam prisoner of war.
On the home front, protest marches against the war and clashes with authorities by war opponents made frequent front-page newspaper photographs. Capturing the spirit of the times, Bernie Boston’s “Flower Power,” taken in 1967, shows a long-haired young man placing blooms in rifle barrels held by a group of unsmiling soldiers.
Among the most chilling images are those chronicling the May 1970 massacre at Kent State University in Ohio, when National Guard troops called in to quell protests against the American invasion of Cambodia fired into an unarmed crowd, killing four students and wounding nine others. Who can forget the picture of a young woman wailing in anguish as she kneels next to the body of a slain friend/student? The gelatin silver print, widely distributed by the Associated Press, “came to symbolize the vehemence of American cultural conflict,” says Acton.
As Davis recalls, in the 1960s and 1970s “enormous shifts in popular culture shared a symbiotic relationship with the proliferation of previously unimagined drug use and antiwar clashes in the streets. Surprising and bizarre events appeared in news reports” and were recorded in photographs, such as heiress Patty Hearst as a bank robber, a masked gunman involved in the mass murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, huge crowds cavorting in the mud during a “Music and Art Fair” on a farmer’s fields in Woodstock, N.Y., and Harvard professor Timothy Leary promoting the use of LSD and other psychoactive drugs while proclaiming, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out,” which curator Acton says “defined the enterprise of dissent.”
“This was a challenging time to be an adolescent,” observes Acton, “when the war, the government and the power of authority prompted feelings of disgust and dread. It was natural for young people to identify with like-minded peers in a growing counterculture.”
Numerous photographs on view record colorful, animated †sometimes doomed †entertainers who revolutionized American music in the 1960s. They run the gamut from the exuberant Beatles taking America by storm to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan performing. Each image is likely to bring back memories for those who lived and loved their music in exciting, bygone times.
The heady successes of the US space program and the enormous national sense of patriotism and pride they engendered are recalled in iconic images of Neil Armstrong and John Glenn in action. Their courage, combined with American technological ingenuity, made possible fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s unforgettable chromogenic print of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon in 1969. These are prime examples of photography’s ability to transcend national and even earthly boundaries to document man’s aspirations and achievements.
Davis, whose full name is Howard G. Davis, was born and raised in Wellesley, Mass., graduated from the Rivers School in Weston, studied printmaking, typography and art history at Wesleyan University and for years ran the Schoolhouse Center for Art and Design in Provincetown that included a photography gallery. Around 2005, he moved back to the Boston area, where he lives in Sherburn. At 60, he says he is “retired but still collect[s] a variety of things, including photography and Hollywood costumes.”
When he gave his photography collection to WAM in 2011, Davis says he presented it “not to comment [on] but to share my experience of the time. I am not a historian, but I was there. If you were there, too, you will recall the impact and power of these photographs. If you were too young to have lived through that time, I hope you can take away something that you have never felt before.”
Given the high quality, nostalgic nature and extraordinary subject matter of the photographs in this fascinating exhibition, it comes as little surprise that their display has drawn admiring crowds and emotional reactions. Davis says he has been “quite overwhelmed at the response and feedback from [visitors of] all ages.” He acknowledges that the “power of the collection” did not “hit” him until he saw it exhibited on the walls of WAM’s galleries.
He says the “strongest emotional responses [have been] from those who lived through the time like myself&⁉ have seen many moved to tears.” Davis has also been pleased “to see and hear the reactions of younger people who are struck by the exact message I was hoping to convey †that the 1960s and early 1970s were perhaps the most turbulent, exciting, fascinating, distressing and stimulating period of the Twentieth Century, if not †dare I say †the entire history of the country.”
All of which suggests that Worcester has a hit on its hands, and that folks of all ages will be well rewarded by a visit to “Kennedy to Kent State.” Davis, whose intelligent collecting and laudable donation made it all possible, concluded in a late November email that “The collection for me is much like my child who has matured and left home. I created it and now I have sent it out into the world to have a life of its own, and so far it has done me proud!”
The large-size exhibition catalog, with numerous reproductions and informative essays by Davis, Acton and Burns, is only 47 pages long, but conveys a lot of useful information. Published by WAM, it sells for $25. The Worcester Art Museum is at 56 Salisbury Street. For information, www.worcesterart.org or 508-799-4406.
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