The 1968 Exhibit: '68: The Incredible Year: LIFE special issue, January 10, 1969

life-jan69When 1968 became "1968"

Forty-one years ago today, LIFE magazine brought out this issue entirely devoted to a breathless review of the year that had just ended: *1968. *The scale of attention here was unprecedented for the venerable LIFE magazine, and I don't believe it was repeated during the rest of the magazine's tenure. *Surely, year-end journalistic wrap-ups were (and are) commonplace, but this was something more: an*entirely retrospective*issue of a magazine that ordinarily prided itself on its up-to-the-minute journalism (especially photojournalism). *Such was the stunning power of the "Incredible Year" *and the extraordinary self-consciousness of the moment. *At virtually the first possible moment, 1968 became "1968"--something larger, more symbolic, more worthy of engraving in virtual monuments.

Battered by a series of awful waves

LIFE begins its coverage with a fast-paced timeline, with a few words and thumbnail photos for each month. *"What ELSE could have happened in one spin around the sun? *It was a year when everybody had to be heard--students, blacks, hippies, yippies, rightists, leftists, dissidents--and then heeded, instantly. *It was a year of confrontation, a year the Establishment became the Enemy, the alienated became the activist and nobody could hear the sensible voice of the quiet man. *It was a year that pulled down the moon almost close enough to touch and put new hearts in people who would have died without them. It was a year nudity lost its novelty and sex came on strong. *Most of all, it was a year we had to learn to expect the astounding, to accept the unthinkable. *Assassination, starvation, invasion--the events, like a series of waves, battered us with awful rapidity. *In short, it was an incredible *year."

Discovery, Shock, War--and Sex

The rest of the magazine is classic LIFE: huge spreads of great photographs, under categories like *"Discovery," with photos of the Apollo VIII mission; "Shock," focusing on the King and Kennedy assassinations; "Dissent," on the student uprisings in Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, New York; "War," with subheadings of "Starvation" (more Biafran children) and "Vietnam," a gruesome pile of wounded American soldiers; "Comeback" (Nixon, of course). *"Social Notes" included spreads on the Jackie-O wedding in October, and the Julie & David nuptials. *There is a photo-spread articles on people surviving with heart transplants, and another on the "Black is Beautiful" movement, with a jaw-dropping, full-page, color photo of a bare-chested Jim Brown--football hero turned movie star--being fondled by Raquel Welch.

Saving LIFE in the basement

A classic issue of LIFE, in short. *And the editors knew it. *The first page of the issue (after an Oldsmobile ad, of course) makes the bold-faced claim that "1 out of 4 Americans will read this issue of LIFE . . . 48 million people will be reading it with you. . . . Which makes Life the single most powerful communications medium that ever existed." *These are the kinds of "souvenir" magazines that people would save in their basements for years. *The particular issue in my hands now, with a scan of the cover appearing above, was saved by LIFE subscriber Michael Spock of Lincoln, Massachusetts--son of one of the people whose photo appears on page 4: *Dr. Benjamin Spock, convicted in June of conspiracy for counseling draft-evaders.