Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Crass thoughts on hippies

In a frame of mind recently to revisit the classics, I picked up Irving Penn's Worlds in a Small Room at the U of O library. Although the book contains several very nice portraits, I found myself flipping through it rather quickly. The photographs have the dated feel of work which hasn't aged very well. Penn photographed cultures from every corner of the world, but instead of showing their peculiarities the effect of the book for me was to homogenize them as collectively exotic.

A hippie? No...This is a tribesman from Lalibu photographed by Irving Penn

Right between the book's chapters on Cameroon and Nepal is a photo essay on San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene circa 1967. I don't think Penn knew quite what to make of hippies. He turned his camera on them as if they were a strange tribe just emerged from the forest, even though at the time of his photographs they were living all around him. Strangely, Penn's feeling of complete removal from hippies probably made his photos stronger than had he been part of that culture. Some photographers photograph best what they know. Penn seems to have been turned on instead by the exotic.

I've found that I'm like Penn in this way. Generally I have an easier time photographing strangers than close friends. For me this means that hippies are very difficult to photograph. Although I don't really call myself a hippie, I was raised in a hippie-based community and a certain amount of that culture seeped into my essence as a child. I spent more than my share of time swimming naked in ponds or holding hands in an Ohm-circle.

Hippie Family, San Francisco, 1967 by Irving Penn

Now I live in Eugene. On Summer Saturdays Eugene's downtown becomes hippie central. The sidewalks are littered with young folks laying around with a guitar or devil's sticks or maybe a few puppies on a rope. Protest signs bloom like flowers. Shoes are scarce, as is any sign of grooming. At the center of it all, in Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza is a huge drum circle which lasts most of the day. All in all, the scene is to a hippie as slop is to a pig. They could wallow in it all day, all life.

These Makehuku men photographed in 1970 by Irving Penn would probably pass unnoticed at Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza

Visually it's a pretty vibrant environment and it should provide good photos. The thing is, I've never gotten anything good there. Last Saturday I wandered downtown but once again struck out, and I realized that I cannot take good photographs of hippies in general, not just downtown but anywhere. It's just too close to home.

I have a much easier time shooting people in suits, tourists, and rich shoppers because —at least in my imagination— they seem to have no inner life. There is no there there, nothing to care about, so I can treat them as pure visual building blocks without worrying what they think.

My alltime favorite hippie image: David Warrington's photograph of Oregon Country Fair, August 28, 1982. For some reason that I've never been able to determine, a poster of this image hangs in the upstairs bathroom at the home of my inlaws who're definitely NOT hippies. Shot on my youngest son's birthday.

But a hippie thinks, and shooting one feels invasive. It's as if the hippies have made an unwritten bargain with society, to drop out, relax, do their own thing, and in return they expect society —me— to leave them alone. When I point a camera at them, I can feel the vibe, "Come on, man, cool it with the spy thing, why are you trying to quantify us, quit being goal oriented, relaaaaaax..." What makes it hard is that part of me thinks they might be onto something. Maybe the thing to do is hang out and drum all day. Maybe all this photo business is just societal crap. Turning people into images, how left-brained, how crass, how unspiritual.

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