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Weekly Alibi The 30th Anniversary of the End of the World

Magnum Photography's 1968

By Blake de Pastino

JULY 27, 1998:  It seemed like the world was spinning faster back then. So fast, some say, that the planet threatened to throw itself apart. It was 1968, a dizzying year. It began in Vietnam, with the Tet Offensive, an onslaught from the north that marked the turning point of the war. It continued with the Prague Spring, an effort "to put a human face" on government in Czechoslovakia, only to be crushed by Soviet tanks. It was the year Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered. And it was the year when a whole generation revolted--in New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Mexico City--rebelling against all the dusty bureaucracies that stood for the status quo. As 1968 hurtled along, people began to suspect that nothing would be quite the same again. For many, it felt like the world was flinging away into fragments, leaving pieces for historians to put together again many decades later.

Well, it's three decades later now, but for some reason, 1998 has seen only a few small commemorations of that fateful year. There were a couple of low-key blurbs on the evening news recalling events in Vietnam, some articles tucked inside the paper about MLK's murder. But overall, few in the media have really tried to take on 1968, to resurrect it and make sense of it. And nowhere is this more surprisingly true than in books. Other than one novel, one poem and one memoir by a British activist, there has been little on bookstore shelves to conjure up memories of 1968. Thankfully, though, the people at Magnum haven't forgotten. Ever since 1947, when this elite photo agency was formed, Magnum's photographers have witnessed some of the most important events on earth. So it should come as no surprise that their retrospective of this turnkey year, 1968: Magnum throughout the world, does not disappoint.

It's all here. In big, black-and-white reproductions, Magnum photographers deliver the entire year on all its fronts, each image more evocative than the last. Photographer Raymond Depardon captures Richard Nixon at the top of a jetway flashing what look like "peace" signs (even though, it turns out, he meant "victory"). Don McCullin finds himself at the business end of a Nigerian separatist's rifle, its barrel pointed right down McCullin's lens. And Josef Koudelka shoots Soviet troops advancing down Prague's main avenue--holding his wristwatch in front of the camera to document the very minute of occupation. They are complicated images of a complicated time; and they should be. It was Magnum's first photographers, afterall, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, who taught us that complexity is the photojournalist's stock in trade.

If there is a weak link anywhere in this collection, in fact, it's the book's awkward attempts to make sense of all this chaos. Historian Eric Hobsbawm and critic Marc Weitzmann both offer essays that ham-handedly grope from one generalization to the next. Each of them fumbles with different strategies for understanding this tumultuous year, ranging from personal recollections to Leftist jargon, but they both seem to end up at square one. Weitzmann punctuates his essay by continuously asking, "What was going on?" That's a question, it seems, better left to the pictures.

The strength of these images is that they don't try to offer any easy answers or eloquent explanations. Instead, they focus on frozen moments, large and small. Eve Arnold photographs a Harlem factory worker holding the first mass-produced black doll, one of 1968's lesser known benchmarks. Henri Cartier-Bresson captures an exquisite scene in a Paris cafe: an elderly matron glaring at the mini-skirted girl next to her. And of course, no scrapbook of 1968 would be complete without documenting the trippy counterculture--naked hippies reclining on park benches, weary commune members clutching mugs of cold coffee, Bob Dylan looking like a gondolier, grinning, tipping his hat, holding his guitar like an oar. These are the images that round out the memory. They are reminders that the world did not, in fact, end in 1968--that Armageddon was no nearer then than it is now, as we sit here on the edge of the millennium. On the anniversary of a year that few seem to remember, it's good to be reminded that this is what we have photographs for. (Scalo, cloth, $49.95)

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