WORCESTER — Let’s begin with two disclaimers.
For most people back then, the 1960s weren’t “the Sixties.” Yes, there were riots and demonstrations and sex and rock ’n’ roll and general upheaval. But a considerable number of Americans experienced all the uproar only secondhand, either as headlines or on television screens. Among the many virtues of “Kennedy to Kent State: Images of a Generation” is its emphasis on the then-unprecedented role of mass media in both shaping and extending the impact of events in that decade. The show runs through Feb. 3 at the Worcester Art Museum.
Put another way, Ed Sullivan mattered more to many people than John, Paul, George, or Ringo did. It’s true that no one under 40 has any idea who Sullivan was, nor should they. But back then, trust me, anybody over 10 knew — and if they didn’t watch his show, they knew people who did.
As it happens, “Kennedy to Kent State” includes a photograph of the Beatles appearing on Sullivan’s show — though with a twist (if not shout). A video monitor in the foreground with John’s face on it dominates the band, which plays in the background. It’s among the 85 images in the show, some of them very well known, some less so, offering a visual chronicle of the Sixties. They all come from the museum’s permanent collection, part of a donation from collector David Davis of 120 photographs, posters, and other items related to the decade.
Note that phrase “related to the decade.” That’s the other disclaimer. Chronology doesn’t define the Sixties. Psychology and sociology do. The Sixties were a state of mind — that’s still true — which is why they continue to inspire such devotion from some and revulsion from others. The Beatles, for example, were Sixties back in the ’50s, as Patty Hearst was Sixties in the ’70s.
Quite sensibly, “Kennedy to Kent State” ignores its title. The first photograph in the show, by date, is from 1957 (Sophia Loren gives Jayne Mansfield the once over). The last is from 1975 (Hubert van Es’s still-shocking image of the evacuation from Saigon). So it predates the Kennedy administration and extends beyond Kent State.
That said, whoever gave the show its title wasn’t kidding about the Kennedy part. There are six photos of JFK before or during his presidency, eight from his assassination, another eight from his funeral, and Robert Kennedy has a few photos of his own, too.
Some famous photographers have work here: Gordon Parks, W. Eugene Smith, Yousuf Karsh, Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold. Others are famous for a single image, such as Eddie Adams’s photo of a young Viet Cong about to be executed and Nick Ut’s of a Vietnamese girl running naked down a road after a napalm attack. (It was Adams who took that “Ed Sullivan Show” shot of the Beatles.)
“Kennedy to Kent State” is even more history lesson than art show. Underscoring that is the presence of five video kiosks, one each devoted to the Kennedy assassination, the space program, the draft, ’60s fashion, and the civil rights movement.
David Davis, writing in the show’s catalog, describes his collection as “a kind of storyboard of the years from 1962 to 1974.” The storyboard features a lot of stars: Twiggy, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe (twice — even if she really was ’50s rather than ’60s), Bob Dylan (also twice). There are extras, too, of course: hippies, the crowd at Woodstock, demonstrators, police, soldiers, terrorists.
As a rule, the news photos — the images taken on the fly, without rehearsal or forethought — hold up better than those striving for an artistic effect. Gene Anthony’s “Timothy Leary in Candlelight” is so visually self-aware it looks silly. Conversely, what could be more dramatic, or better composed, than Robert H. Jackson’s picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald or Joseph Louw’s image of King’s aides pointing in unison in the direction James Earl Ray fired from? And while NASA astronauts weren’t exactly professional photographers, the images by them in the show retain more than just keen historical interest. Several are startlingly beautiful.
There’s a fundamental tension in “Kennedy to Kent State” between two kinds of images: those purely emblematic of their time and those that transcend it. The former predominate in the show, as they should. Many are highly recognizable. The excitement that comes of seeing them reminds us that familiarity can breed more than just contempt.
It’s the other photographs, though, that stand out. When only scholars know anything about the geopolitics that lay behind the Saigon evacuation, anyone seeing van Es’s photograph will still be riveted by its grim interplay of geometry and urgency. A woman wearing a black veil and dress sits in a church pew with a little girl in her lap staring off into space. Moneta J. Sleet’s photograph is of Coretta Scott King holding her daughter at her husband’s funeral. But the universality of the image is as old as the Greeks and Trojans — and as ongoing as grief. As for Buzz Aldrin’s image of his fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong’s bootprint on the surface of the moon, it’s a reminder that at least one artifact of the the Sixties will endure as long as the solar system does.