It was the year hippy idealism gave way to riot and struggle with protests in Paris, tanks in Prague and black power in the US. Guardian writers pick the pivotal works from that tumultuous time
Photography: The moment a country lost its sense of self
On 19 August 1968, Josef Koudelka returned to Czechoslovakia from Romania, where he had been living among and photographing Romany Gypsies. The following day, Soviet tanks appeared on the streets of Prague. For seven days, the 30-year-old Moravian-born photographer roamed the city with his East German Exakta Varex camera loaded with movie film, the only stock he could find at short notice.
The resulting images, some of which were smuggled out of the country, but many of which were not seen until decades later, captured the tumult of a traumatised city. They are recognised as one of the most powerful photojournalistic essays of the 20th century.
Koudelka photographed teenagers blocking the paths of Soviet tanks, old people imploring the young Soviet soldiers to return home, flag-waving youths clambering over army vehicles. He returned to his apartment only to find more film or succumb to exhaustion. His images of defiance have, in the interim, become infused with a romantic, even elegiac quality. Their atmosphere is echoed in photographs of more recent upheavals, most notably the Arab Spring protests.
This image, which he titled Hand and Wristwatch, is of a different order: a singular moment of calm and stillness. Here, there is no movement, no noise, only the almost empty street and that anonymous arm in the foreground, stretching out into the frame. It captures not just the moment the troops entered Prague but also the eerie atmosphere of an entire city and country helplessly losing its sense of itself.
Look closely and you can see a small group of people who have left their work to gather on the pavement. In the background, those blurry vehicles may be tanks. Everything is uncertain here except the hand of a passerby, curled into a fist, and the hands of the watch that signal the moment when everything changed utterly for the citizens of the invaded city. This may be Koudelkas only conceptual photograph, but it resonates as an iconic image of a tumultuous political moment in which there is no tumult only an eerie silence in which time itself seems to have come to a halt. Sean OHagan
Music: The sound of hippy idealism curdling
The events of 1968 took some time to percolate through pop: it wasnt until a year later that Thunderclap Newman would reach No 1 with a song urging the listener to hand out the arms and ammo because the revolutions here, and that a mood of increasing militancy would really start being reflected by black artists. Of the musicians who did react quickly to 1968s tumult, the Rolling Stones were audibly re-energised and the Beatles baffled you can count me out in, sang John Lennon on Revolution. The most incendiary music made in immediate response to the years events, a recording of Nina Simone performing at the Westbury Music Fair three days after Martin Luther Kings assassination, was bowdlerised before being released, not least to remove the sound of Simone urging the audience to avenge Kings death by any means: I aint about to be non-violent, honey.
Meanwhile, released in September 1968 in the aftermath of the Miami riots and the Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago Jefferson Airplanes The House at Pooneil Corners offers the sound of hippy idealism curdling into something infinitely darker. It opens with scraping guitar noise, before an ominous, lumbering two-chord riff strikes up. The lyrics bemoan both all the bullshit around us and the countercultures desire to get balled and high: You say its healing, but nobodys feeling it you say you dont see and you dont. After two minutes, in lieu of the usual guitar solo, theres a lengthy electronic wail that sounds like a siren, and the tone is increasingly apocalyptic: There will be no survivors, my friend.
By the songs conclusion, the lyrics are positing that a post-human world where all the idiots have left will be a kind of naive pastoral utopia replete with cows and turtle doves, but the music tells a different story: it just grinds relentlessly on and on, with more siren-like feedback, more keening guitars. Its effective because it feels like an honest reaction to the events of 1968: not a strident call for revolution, nor a glib attempt to assure listeners that its going to be all right, but the sound of people clearly shaken and confused: peering, terrified, into the void. Alexis Petridis
TV: One second that represented decades of progress
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