WORCESTER — David Davis lived through the ’60s. The cliches surge through the mind: Race to the moon. Birmingham race riots. Assassinated president. Murder in Memphis. Beatles and Stones. Dylan, Baez. Woodstock. The pill. Vietnam.
All these images are so familiar, so indelible, that the mind almost revolts. The ’60s, you say? Hippies. Flower power. Narcissistic naivete. Get over it.
But maybe if you lived it, you can’t get over it. And maybe part of what you can’t get over is how it all keeps coming back – in pop culture as in politics – as if our culture were stuck in an endless loop, or some kind of harrowing, hard-to-fathom Mobius strip.
David Davis couldn’t get over it. In 2000, his Schoolhouse Center for Art and Design in Provincetown hosted a show in its Driskel Gallery, a separate space dedicated to photography, organized around the theme of war.
The Driskel’s director, Larry Collins, had been drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam after finishing art school in 1967. The show Collins mounted included vintage prints of famous photographs from the Vietnam War, such as Nick Ut’s “Children Fleeing a Napalm Attack on Their Village of Trang Bang” and Eddie Adams’s “Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing the Viet Cong Guerilla Bay Lop.”
Davis reacted so strongly to seeing them on the walls of his own gallery that he bought the prints. He didn’t know it at the time, but that decision would mark the beginning of the formation of a remarkable collection of iconic news photographs taken between 1963 and 1974.
The collection of over 100 images took 12 years to compile. Davis recently gave it to the Worcester Art Museum, and this fall, the museum will feature the collection in “Kennedy to Kent State: Images of a Generation.”
The dates are not arbitrary. They’re personal: It was in 1963 that Davis became a teenager. 1974 was the year he graduated from college.
But of course, one or two things happened in those years that weren’t just personal. They had global repercussions. And in many ways, the point of this show is to provide a chance to remember (for those who were there) or to imagine (for those who weren’t) what it was really like to come of age in the midst of so much drastic upheaval. A time when, as Davis writes in the show’s catalog, “the whole country came of age.”
That all this is being attempted in 2012, through the medium of news photographs, is worth pausing to reflect on. Many of the photographs in “Kennedy to Kent State” have become part of our collective consciousness. According to Worcester Art Museum curator David Acton, who was also a young man in the ’60s, “For my generation, these were the images around which history crystallized.”
Individual photographs such as Adams’s photograph of South Vietnam’s police chief executing a suspected Viet Cong, for instance, played a huge part in galvanizing efforts to end the war. They became seared into the minds of those who saw them – seemingly everyone.
Could that happen today? In our image-saturated environment, could any particular image of war, trauma, or upheaval ever become so iconic?
It’s hard to say. But what Acton refers to as the “crystallizing of history” around certain unforgettable images was certainly a remarkable phenomenon. It was, as Acton says, “totally different from the way images are digested today.”
The images that were published then were relatively few, compared to our current digital era, in which photographs are not only ubiquitous but can be exchanged with frictionless ease.
Photographers had to be in the right place at the right time and had to know how to focus and compose an image, notes Acton. They sent in rolls of film negatives to news organizations. From these negatives certain images were selected by picture editors. And of course, there was always a time lag between the taking of the photograph and its publication and dissemination. That time lag has all but evaporated today.
Ironically, the photographs in “Kennedy to Kent State” only became available to Davis thanks to the digitization of the vast image libraries held by newspapers and magazines. This process was underway just as Davis and Collins began the collection.
Until then, newspapers had kept physical copies of photographs on file, cross-referencing them under various category headings for later use. Each time an image was used, it would be marked on the reverse side with the date and purpose of that use, and the captions used. Thus, each photograph could be read almost in archeological terms, as a kind of palimpsest of its cultural resonance.
Gradually, after embarking on their collecting mission, Davis and Collins realized the significance of all this. First, the transition from film photography to digital constituted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rescue the prints: Once digitized, many were on their way to the dump.
Second, the intimate connection between these prints and the actual making of news, the creation of cultural value, was something to treasure in itself.
Says Acton: “You have to acknowledge what a brilliant thing he [Davis] did, and at just the right time.”
As the collection grew, Davis and Collins stopped applying traditional criteria to the photographs they were collecting – above all, good condition. Instead, they began to look at the photographs as artifacts. They valued precisely all those “stickers, stamps, and notations on the verso,” as Collins writes, because they signaled a more immediate connection with the events or people portrayed.
That’s the kind of exhibition “Kennedy to Kent State” aims to be. It’s not about traditional fine art values (even though many of the photographs really are extraordinary). Nor is it all about war and upheaval: About half the images were chosen with an eye for beauty, excitement, joy, and fun – photographs of pop icons like Bob Dylan and the Beatles, for instance, or Neil Armstrong’s shot of Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
It’s about immediacy – about connecting again with a set of images that had – and continue to have – an intensely concentrated cultural resonance. It’s an opportunity, too, for parents and their children to, as Acton says, “stop and look at things and say, ‘This happened.’”
That, he hopes, will lead to a lot of questions, a lot of talking.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.