East City Art Reviews—One Year: 1968, An American Odyssey at the National Portrait Gallery

By Ted Coltman on August 20, 2018
Earthrise by William Alison Anders
Earthrise by William Alison Anders, Photo blow-up, December 24, 1968. Courtesy NASA.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has mounted a deeply thoughtful exhibition of portraits, news photographs, and video clips chronicling a single year in American life. The year was 1968—a time of great social and cultural upheaval, a time of shocking violence both at home and abroad, and a time of surprising insight into our stewardship of the planet on which humanity lives.

It was also the year when the National Portrait Gallery itself opened to the public, charged with telling America’s story by “acquir[ing] and display[ing] portraits of the individuals who shape the nation’s history, development and culture.” Traditionally, a portrait is an artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is often predominant, displaying the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. This exhibition, One Year: 1968, An American Odyssey, is focused not on an individual life, but on the dramatic interplay between a stunning variety of well-known persons—both “visionaries and villains”—and the social contexts in which they lived and acted during that one tumultuous year.

Nearly 40 individuals are depicted in this exhibition, ranging from the likes of César Chávez, Barbra Streisand, Janis Joplin and Vince Lombardi to Walter Cronkite, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr. and Shirley Chisholm.  They were chosen from among the many areas of American life from which individuals often come to be celebrated: entertainment, politics (both partisan and mass movement), sports, literature, government, and science. The people who created the images that portray them also include many artists who are themselves celebrated, including Richard Avedon, George Tames, David Levine, Roy Lichtenstein, Irving Penn, and Louis S. Glanzman.

The stories on which this exhibition focuses attention are overwhelmingly about themes much larger than a few score celebrated individuals. At least three run throughout:

  • The struggles of millions of people for civil rights, economic advancement, political power, and cultural dignity. Images include a now-iconic photograph by an unidentified artist of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos during a medal ceremony at the Olympic Summer Games in Mexico City, their black-gloved fists raised and their heads bowed in a Black Power salute; and a much less well-known George Tames photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. launching the Poor People’s Campaign that he would not live to lead for long. There’s a Richard Darby photograph of César Chávez and his wife Helen sharing a piece of bread with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in Delano, California after the United Farm Workers leader ended a 25-day fast for non-violence in the migrant workers’ struggle with grape growers for better wages and working conditions.  A Richard Avedon photograph captures an image of Shirley Chisholm, co-founder of the National Organization for Women, who in 1968 won New York’s 12th Congressional District, becoming the first black woman ever elected to Congress.
  • The growing frustration of many people with a war for national liberation in Southeast Asia that American military power could not decisively defeat, a war from which efforts to extricate American forces were often painted as ‘defeatist,’ ‘cowardly,’ even ‘treasonous’. Images include David Levine’s caricature President Johnson as King Lear, which appeared on the cover of Time magazine at the start of the year. This was just three months before Johnson’s announcement that he would seek a negotiated peace with North Vietnam and would not seek re-election that fall.  Recalling the horrors of the Vietnam war, a ghostly Fred Burrell photograph  represents Lt. William L. Calley, who in mid-March led a company of American troops in a massacre of some 500 civilians in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai.  There are two Louis S. Glanzman portraits that appeared on the cover of Time   One is of Sen. Robert Kennedy that appeared after his assassination on the night of the California primary put an end to his presidential campaign opposing the Johnson administration’s war policies.  The other  shows Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Edmund Muskie, the Democratic Party presidential ticket nominated at the party’s national convention in Chicago that summer, with the snarling visage of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley looming in the background on the portrait; this because Daley had ordered police to brutally subdue anti-war protestors demonstrating outside the convention hall.
  • The efforts of countless unheralded people to project America’s technological and industrial prowess into space, marrying a heroic narrative of exploration and adventure with vastly greater investment in surveillance of both natural processes and human activities worldwide. Images include a Hector Garrido portrait (also for the cover of Time magazine) of William Anders, Frank Borman, and James Lovell, the three Apollo 8 astronauts, whose voyage brought the year to an end as they achieved the first successful human orbit of Earth’s moon. Yet, the exhibition also includes the photograph that may be the single most memorable and worldview-changing portrait that human beings have created in the last several millennia. That is Earthrise, a color photograph that Anders took on Christmas Eve, as human eyes for the first time saw the whole earth as it rose above the horizon of the moon’s surface.  It was not the first photograph of the whole earth—one had been taken with a camera in the unmanned ATS-3 satellite earlier in the year—but it would become the image that changed forever our way of thinking about the planet we inhabit. A little more than a year later, it would be the icon of the first Earth Day, when 20 million Americans gathered in massive rallies across the country to demonstrate a new intensity of commitment to the stewardship of their home.

These are not stories that most Americans can remember: fewer than a third of us are old enough to have witnessed the events of that year in our own lifetime. But all of us may have heard accounts and seen images of the people who did. This exhibition also throws light on some ways in which portraiture, as traditionally defined, constrains how both art and history tell stories. Other kinds of images—posters, still photographs, and  ten  or so video clips of events in which many individual people played a part, but also iconic images of phenomena that transcend all the human beings with whom they interact—­complement the traditional portraits, sometimes enriching what a portrait can convey by itself, and sometimes sketching out the broader arenas in which the people who are portrayed led their lives.

Among the non-traditional portraiture, Washingtonians will find images most relevant to our own city as a physical place, rather than as merely the seat of government. One is an 80-second narrated video clip of assembled news footage concerning the rioting that followed the murder of Dr. King and the military suppression of those uprisings. The narration notes the loss of life in those few days of civil disorder, but it only hints obliquely at the catastrophic and long-lasting damage to the city’s social fabric that the destruction of property exposed after nearly a century of Jim Crow oppression.  Another image of special interest to Washingtonians is a still photograph by Oliver F. Atkins, taken from high above Resurrection City, a muddy encampment along the southern side of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, where 3,000 or so participants in the Poor People’s Campaign came to live in plywood and canvas shanties for six weeks that spring.  It is a record of a moment in time that we should not forget.

“One Year: 1968, An American Odyssey,” curated by Portrait Gallery Historian James Barber, will be on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F streets NW, through May 19, 2019.