A photographic memoir of 'The Eighties'

April 13, 1993|By James O'Shea | James O'Shea,Chicago Tribune

The 1980s started with the hostage crisis that swept Jimmy Carter from the White House and made the Ayatollah Khomeini as notorious as John Dillinger. The decade ended with the collapse of communism, the invasion of Panama, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the death of the ayatollah, whose religious crusade had shaped the period so decisively.

In between there were Lech Walesa, El Salvador, "Who shot J. R.?", Mount St. Helens, Col. Muammar el Kadafi, Ronald Reagan, Reverend Moon, George Bush, "Tootsie," Lebanon, Ethiopia, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Bernhard Goetz, Michael Milken, Iran-contra, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Bork, Madonna -- and Vincent Virga, who has created a memoir of the decade in a powerful photo essay, "The Eighties: Images of America."

Mr. Virga's book is reminiscent of the old Life magazine annual in which editors assembled the most vivid photographs of the past year in a single issue. But "The Eighties" differs in some arresting ways.

More than a collection of snappy photos, this book is a black-and-white photo essay with a narrative line. It's designed to give readers a sense of the decade just gone while

assessing the state of the American dream -- liberty and justice for all.

Mr. Virga portrays the dawn of the 1980s darkly. He mixes photos of the "new icons of beauty" -- tanned, muscular men in Calvin Klein briefs and shapely young women in Calvin Klein jeans -- with images of Central American death squads and the human skulls that litter the landfills of El Salvador. The result is a vision of America as a nation struggling to liberate itself from a ghastly world through the self-absorption that characterized much of the period.

Mr. Virga ends the decade on a far more hopeful note. By the latter years of the decade, his narrative celebrates the collapse of communism for what it was -- the liberation of a generation from a jail.

One of the striking elements of "The Eighties" is the voice it gives to those who died. There are mothers dancing for the dead in El Salvador, parents and friends searching the

black wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, dazed Marines pulling their buddies from the wreckage in Beirut, and police dragging Haitian bodies across the beach in Miami.

At the end of each year, Mr. Virga records the deaths of the famous. For example, the world lost actress Mae West, politician Marshal Tito, labor leader George Meany and comedian Jimmy Durante in 1980. He also records the AIDS death toll.

The juxtaposition of famous artists, philosophers, politicians, entertainers and so forth with a chilling, anonymous statistic is powerful. At the end of 1981, the death toll from acquired immune deficiency syndrome stood at 163. By the end of the decade, actor Jackie Gleason, composer Eubie Blake, actress Gloria Swanson, writer E. B. White and actress Lucille Ball had died. The AIDS death toll was 83,681.

A lot of wacky things happened in the 1980s. Star Wars and steroids, the S&L scandal, Disneyland in Tokyo, Michael Jackson and more. Mr. Virga captures it all. The author's political bent obviously is liberal, and sometimes that gets in the way.

But on the whole, "The Eighties" is an excellent, often moving photo essay that allows us to contemplate the present by means of a penetrating look at the past.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Eighties: Images of America."

Author: Vincent Virga.

Publisher: HarperCollins.

Length, price: 245 pages, $40.

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