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What’s Going On: Ken Light’s Collection Recaptures Sights of the Sixties

February 8, 2016
by Pat Joseph

Photographer and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism professor Ken Light’s new photography collection, What’s Going On, opens with copies from his FBI file. In a confidential memo dated June 28, 1972, the agent assigned to tail Light advised his higher-ups that, considering the young man’s association “with the ‘Underground Press,’ it is felt that an interview with him could prove embarrassing to the Bureau.”

Photographer Ken Light in 1972

At that point, Light was a longhaired kid with a Nikon and a press pass from the Liberation News Service—a kind of Associated Press for the anti-Vietnam set. His first real break in journalism had come after he photographed a student demonstration at Ohio University in response to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Light was arrested that day, but the film survived and his images of cops and National Guardsmen clashing with students amid clouds of tear gas were published in news outlets around the world. “For a 19-year-old,” he says, “you can imagine, that was pretty heady stuff!”

These days Light has more hair under his nose than atop his head, and what’s there is white. But sitting and talking in his campus office in North Gate Hall, he still seems every bit the old hippie. The new book, his ninth, is the first one Light has self-published. He financed the project with $45,000 he raised on Kickstarter. Crowd-funding not only gave him creative control, he says, it also seemed more in keeping with his subject matter—the Sixties.

Ken Light today, as a photographer/professor

That clash at Ohio U is featured in the pages of What’s Going On, along with a wide assortment of Light’s earliest documentary work, all snapped from 1969 to 1974—a tumultuous era, to say the least. The result is surprising, in part, for not focusing solely on the tumult. Rather, it offers a cross-section view of America, almost like a ten-year update to Robert Frank’s celebrated 1958 monograph, Les Américains. Indeed, Light says that Frank’s opus has always been part of what he calls his “inner conversation about photography.”

Through Light’s lens, we get all manner of Americans in What’s Going On: retirees in Miami, tent preachers in Ohio, black kids in the Bronx, poor whites in Appalachia, street people on Telegraph in Berkeley. We also get Nixon rallies in Florida, Hare Krishnas in Venice Beach, farm workers in Salinas, and Reagan and McGovern.

One personal favorite is a shot from Yosemite. There are no people in it, no soaring granite walls, just a giant Cadillac, all fins and sparkling chrome fenders, parked among the redwoods. To me, it recalled Rondal Partridge’s great 1960 photograph of a jam-packed parking lot with Half Dome in background, a seeming reaction to the Ansel Adams school of nature photography, wherein cars and trucks and buildings were often dodged and burned from the landscape.

Light says he became aware of Partridge’s image only years after shooting the Caddy, and remembers that the older photographer, (the son of Imogen Cunningham), used to talk about “how Ansel left out the signs, the fences, and the people.…I think my reaction to seeing the Cadillac was that it seemed so outside of the natural world of Yosemite. How could you love nature and drive such a beast?”

Readers coming to Light’s book expecting drugs, rebellion and rock ‘n’ roll won’t be entirely disappointed; also in these pages are Tim Leary in exile, John Lennon on stage, and Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman holding forth in front of TV cameras. For my money, though, the single best portrait in the collection is of an icon of the Establishment—young Henry Kissinger at the Republican National Convention, looking every bit the cat that swallowed the canary.

In his introduction to the first American edition of Les Américains, Jack Kerouac remarked on the Swiss-born photographer’s propensity for shooting jukeboxes and coffins. After seeing these pictures, the bard of the Beats wrote, he couldn’t tell which object was sadder. The analog here seems to be televisions and American flags. The latter, especially, serve as a leitmotif in What’s Going On. We see Old Glory hanging from trees, waving at political rallies, held aloft in parades, draped over shoulders at rock concerts. A smiling boy holds a flag while awaiting the return of POWs at an Air Force base in Ohio.

Asked to comment about the significance of the Stars and Stripes in his work, Light muses: “I guess the flag represented to me the potential of a great nation as it should be in my mind.” And yet, whether it appeared in the context of a Nixon rally or a hippie encampment, it was clear to him that, “All these people had a different view of how our country should or could be. I have been photographing the last four years on a new project on income inequality and again the flags keep popping up in my photos. I think we are still struggling with what America is and who owns the iconography of the red, white and blue.”

On the cover of What’s Going On and again in the penultimate shot, a grainy image of an American flag fills a TV screen. It’s from the Oval Office on the day Nixon resigned, August 8, 1974—in Light’s mind, the proper end of the Sixties. During that televised event, he also shot Nixon on screen, the famously jowly countenance of the now-disgraced president framed like a mug shot by the rounded corners of the set.

Our screens have long since flattened out, the edges squared off. We mostly take pictures on our phones now, occasionally running the images through algorithms to make them look more like old Polaroids. I asked Light, who still shoots and develops his own film, what it’s like to teach and practice photojournalism today in the age of ubiquitous cameras. He held up one arm up in the attitude of the selfie-shooter; “They’re all pointed like this now.”

Aside from the technological changes—his students shoot in digital format and their darkroom is Photoshop—he said his first challenge is often just in convincing students that their own times are worth documenting. “There’s a tendency to think the past was more exciting than their own era.” His job is to help them see what’s in front of them, whether it’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, gun violence, or rising student debt. “There’s always something going on.”

Photos copyright by, and courtesy of, Ken Light; shots from the Sixties appear in What’s Going On

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