Protest in Paris 1968: Photographs by Serge Hambourg

Posted on September 01, 2006 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2006
Brian Kennedy, Director, and Katherine Hart, Associate Director

Of what value are photographs when reflecting upon historic events? Many are compelling images that give the look and feel of a time that is past—the way people dressed, their fleeting expressions, the particularity of a place at a certain day and hour. What truths are to be gleaned from them, if any? Why do some photographs become symbolic of an entire era?

The most famous are studied more for their impact than their status as historical documents—the standing hooded figure from Abu Ghraib, the kneeling figure of a Kent State student, the execution of a captured Viet Cong fighter, the Rwandan youth with machete scars fanning across his face. Are photographic images a stumbling block or an aid in understanding the events that they capture?

With these questions in mind, the Hood Museum of Art presents thirty-five images of the "events" of May 1968 in Paris by French photographer Serge Hambourg. During this turbulent year Hambourg was working as a photojournalist for the weekly left-leaning magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. He first photographed the student protest leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit talking to a group at Nanterre University in early March and then followed the numerous demonstrations and meetings as events heated up later that spring. Some of these images were printed in Le Nouvel Observateur. Most of them, however, have been filed away until now.

A college museum often collaborates with its faculty in investigations of visual culture and its relation to society, politics, and other art forms. For this project the Hood has been extremely fortunate to work with Anne Sa'adah, Joel Parker Professor of Law and Political Science, Department of Government, Dartmouth College, who lent her expertise on French politics, society, and culture to the interpretation of these images.

For the exhibition catalogue, she contributed a scholarly essay that illuminates the conditions of the protests and the personalities that Serge Hambourg captures on film. Sa'adah describes the students' intense frustration, which escalated quickly into demonstrations and clashes between police and protestors. The inept reaction of the government in turn led to worker's strikes and a general upheaval that precipitated the dissolution of the French National Assembly and new general elections. Sa'adah's essay describes the complexity of the situation and the varying factions among the left who vied to become the arbiters of the message of reform, as well as the initial misunderstanding by political leaders of the serious nature of the uprising.

Thomas Crow, Director of the Getty Research Institute, has also contributed an essay on the artistic aspects of the May events. To provide further context for the exhibition, the museum will present Hood Museum of Art paintings, sculpture, and prints from the 1960s and early 1970s by such artists as Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Ben Vautier, and Yayoi Kusama.

This exhibition would not have reached fruition without the support and deep interest of the Parnassus Foundation and Raphael and Jane Bernstein, decades-long supporters of Serge Hambourg's work. We are indebted in particular to Raphael Bernstein's dedication to the interdisciplinary aspects of this presentation of Hambourg's work. It is our hope that this exhibition and catalogue will illuminate the events of 1968 for today's college and university students, demonstrating how they have helped to shape our own political consciousness at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Greater comprehension of the key events that defined the postwar generation, along with a developed sense of history, will make for more considered and informed choices within the democratic system that prospers through our participation today.

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Written September 01, 2006 by Kristin Swan