Ken Light: What’s Going On?
These photographs offer a portrait of America the way it really was for me as I lived it and documented it from 1969, when I turned 18 and first began to identify myself as a photographer, through President Nixon s resignation in 1974, which many consider the true end of the decade.
Documentary photographer Ken Light has lived through times of incredible change and fortunately, he had a camera at the ready, capturing the unrest and derisiveness that challenged our nation in the late ’60s and early’70s. Ken zig-zagged across the country with a “youthful passion and a yearning to explain his country to himself, asking, ‘What’s going on?'”
He has recently created a book under the same title, What’s Going On (published by Light Squared Media), and considering today’s elections and candidates, I can’t help but wonder if our country will once again move into a time of protest. Ken is a Professor of Photojournalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley and understands and appreciates the legacy of documenting history through photography.
His frontline photos documented people across race, class and political lines. The resulting portrait is more than a flashback. It is a unique and important historical record that counteracts the truncated memory of the sixties that has been inserted into our psyche by both editorial and commercial media. Like a Pavlovian response, the sixties conjures up images of young people smoking pot, dancing high on LSD to rock music in the park. In fact, those years weren’t like that at all for much of America.
Ken Light has worked as a freelance documentary photographer, focusing on social issues facing America for over 40 years. His work has been published in nine books, including, What’s Going On? Coal Hollow, Delta Time, To The Promised Land, With These Hands, Texas Death Row and Valley of Shadows and Dreams. He is also the author of the text Witness in Our Time: Lives of Working Documentary Photographers, now in its second edition. His work has been in numerous photo essays in magazines, newspapers and a variety of media (electronic & film), and presented in over 180 exhibitions worldwide including one person shows at the International Center for Photography (NYC), Oakland Museum of California, S.E. Museum of Photography, Visual Studies Workshop, Smith College Art Museum, Visa pour L’image Perpignan (France) and the San Jose Museum of Art. He is the Reva and David Logan Professor of Photojournalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley. He was the Laventhal Visiting Professor at Columbia University and was a co-founder of Fotovision, and the International Fund for Documentary Photography at Mother Jones Magazine.
My monograph of my earliest photos from 1969 to 1974 document the social landscape of America as it roiled with upheaval. I began as a participant in the youth movement and then became an observer of the entire spectrum of the cultural and political wars in America. I criss-crossed the country with youthful passion and a yearning to explain my country, asking, “What’s going on?”
Along the way, these frontline photos documented people across race, class and political lines. The resulting portrait is more than a flashback. It is a unique and important historical record that counteracts the truncated memory of the sixties that has been inserted into our psyche by both editorial and commercial media. Like a Pavlovian response, the sixties conjures up images of young people smoking pot, dancing high on LSD to rock music in the park. In fact, those years weren’t like that at all for much of America.
This journey through America opens with teenagers at the beach with their transistor radio lying next to them. We see the quiet before the storm: high school students with their Eisenhower textbook, retired people playing cards and cafeteria workers quietly striking. We feel the pent up tension with no outlet. And then, suddenly the new, alternative worldview bursts forth. We follow this rupture, the Vietnam Moratorium, Republican Convention, riots, POW’s coming home, until the end of the era when Nixon resigns.
What’s Going On? shows the gritty, down home truth of the working class trying to keep a toehold on the American Dream as wages began to stagnate, and unions weakened. It shows how college students, informed by the media about government policies in Vietnam became disillusioned and then empowered to protest. And, the book shows how divided the United States was politically as the new, more egalitarian world order was foisted upon it.
This portrait of America will make many of us smile as long forgotten memories are stirred, and will remind us that so much of the turmoil we are experiencing today is because we have not yet absorbed the cataclysmic changes brought about in the sixties.
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