I grew up Grand Rapids, Michigan and loved spending time in our basement and looking through old newspapers my father had saved in a large metal flat file. The papers were from across the country, including the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. It was the newspaper from my own hometown, the Grand Rapids Press, however, that captured my imagination. I was especially drawn to a headline documenting the tornado, which swept through our neighborhood in on April 22nd, 1967, two days before my 2nd birthday. The pictures of neighbor’s houses with roofs blown off and another of a young boy, who had sustained injuries with bandages wrapped around his head and eye, are etched in my mind. Other world events such as the JFK and RFK assassinations, Apollo moon landing, Watergate, the appointment of President Ford, the death of Elvis and the hostage crisis were all part of the cultural wallpaper of my childhood in the 1970’s.
Looking through these newspapers, I was also interested in the advertisements for department stores (many long since closed) and the stylish illustrations of ladies in fancy suits and hats. These glamorous images offered a promise of what to look forward to as an adult. Equally fascinating was how the ads reflected the times as much as the news stories. As a 10 year old, in 1975, I was keenly aware of how “old fashioned” the 1960’s felt. Everything from the movie ads to the way people dressed in photographs felt like it was from another era, when in fact it was only 10 years earlier.
Working with this material, I experimented with what happens when the front and back pages of a specific newspaper collide, such as when an illustration of two girls advertising back to school clothes is superimposed on a photo of a missing twelve year old girl in a nearby suburb. What this says to me is, even when these terrible tragedies happen – life goes on and so does the drum of commerce. The newspapers my Dad collected also tell a lot about him – his interest in sports, politics and major world events. What he held onto was what he felt was important enough to “preserve”. What is also interesting are the headlines he did not keep such as the MLK assassination, civil rights legislation or the fight for the ERA amendment. All of the subjects of his headlines are exclusively white men. Seen as a whole, they document the triumphs and failures of the institutions we, as a culture, have been conditioned to put our faith in. What is also reinforced in these events is that trauma and devastation can happen overnight – weather it is from Mother Nature or a person with an agenda out to do harm.
These newspapers provide not only a snapshot of the world at that time, but also the culture of the city I grew up in. When Gerald Ford, a native of Grand Rapids, was sworn in as president on August 9, 1974, the headline from that day read, “Ford Becomes President” with a large color photo of Ford above the fold. Below the fold and in the bottom right hand corner is the iconic picture of Nixon about to board the helicopter, smiling and waving two peace signs above his head. That title reads, “Nixon Times Departure To Leave as President”. The placement of images tells it all. Now it seems almost quaint that there was once a time when most of the news came from either your hometown newspaper or half an hour on the nightly news. Still, in the age of the 24/7 news cycle, when news is commerce and commerce is news, we ask ourselves – “how much has really changed?”