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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Flowers in Your Hair...

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It seems a lifetime ago that Elaine Mayes, then a fledgling photojournalist in her late 20s, went to Monterey California to photograph a pop concert.

Do the math: June, 1967 to June, 2003 will be 36 years. Time that is book-ended by two ugly wars. Time in which a vice president and then a president were forced to resign from office, disgraced by scandal. Time for a senator/presidential candidate, as well as a civil rights leader, to be shot in cold blood, after which a shaken nation wept and cities erupted in flames.

[Time also for man to walk on the moon.]

It's not that we survived intact but that we survived at all.

To those of us who lived through all of this – and who therefore are old enough occasionally to be disheartened, if not overwhelmed, by what is going on around us now – it is therapeutic every so often to wander back to a simpler time.

Note: I did not say a better time. Only a simpler one.

There is a naive simplicity to Mayes' book It Happened in Monterey (Britannia Press, $29.95), a portfolio largely of performance shots made during the historic Monterey International Pop Festival, June 16-18, 1967. Mayes, who recently retired from a long career as a photographic educator (she was chair of the photography department at NYU and recipient of numerous important photography fellowships) went to Monterey to shoot for Hullabaloo, a now-defunct magazine that chronicled the music scene of the 1960s. Working only by available light with two Nikon F's and a Leica M2, Mayes documented what many regard as the seminal rock concert of the era: an event that, miraculously, brought together thousands of young people and scores of first rate musicians for an overwhelmingly peaceful series of shows in the shadow of San Francisco.

The acts worked for free; it was a benefit. It was the event that inspired John Phillips to write about going to San Francisco "with flowers in your hair."

It was the Summer of Love – before all hell broke loose the following year. In Mayes' collection, which is accompanied by invaluable text and reminiscences from many of the festival's participants, there is a heartbreakingly young Janis Joplin, long before her fatal descent into booze and pills, singing her heart out and also, later, sitting in the audience with open-faced appreciation, grooving on the other acts.

There are kick-ass blues players and rockers: Electric Flag, Paul Butterfield, Steve Miller, Country Joe, Canned Heat.

Were Simon and Garfunkel ever that young?

And there, frozen forever as we remember him, because he died so soon after: Jimi Hendrix in frenzied anguish with his electric guitar, caught in mid-growl by a young white girl with a camera who occasionally had to ride the shoulders of a friend, the better to avoid out-of-focus heads of the taller people in front of her.

"I always wanted to be an artist, a photographer," Mayes told me by e-mail from her book tour, "and I always wanted to do straight photography. I was not good at earning money. I spent all I made on my work. I thought getting a paycheck was a good idea, considering my personality. I have always attended events when I was able. I like being in the world a great deal."

"I got offered a teaching job [at the University of Minnesota] without applying for it, and I had found I was bored with most assignments. I really wanted to do my own thing photographically, and teaching was a way to earn a living. Teaching was a compromise."

I asked her: Did you ever miss shooting more events as they happened, musical or otherwise? I noted that in her book's foreword she alluded to the fact that Monterey might have signaled the "end to an era." [As it happened, in 1967 I was 3,000 miles away in New York beginning my own career as a newspaper reporter. I got a cold-water baptism the following year covering riots and assassinations.] Did those tumultuous events, I asked Mayes, "affect your life direction?"

"I can't say that political America had much effect except [that] the hippie movement was all around me, and I was very sympathetic, wearing two caps really. I was a pacifist, and I was against the war in Vietnam, but I knew all along that I wanted to do my own thing. I was never political per se. I continued with photography in the world all along. I just quit assignments for the most part. I had a background in music, so getting involved in the music revolution was natural..."

"I was a music major in college before I switched to art," Mayes went on. "I played the piano, the clarinet – earlier the French horn – and I sang in both the chorus and the chorale at Stanford. I come from a musical family. My aunts and uncles had a band that played at family events...kind of a blue grass sound. If my musical education had not been just classical, I might have been a musician after all. I would like to have been a bass player, but when I was young, women did not play in rock and roll bands or in jazz bands. They were singers, and I was too shy to sing alone."

Important though Monterey was to Mayes personally as an artist, she did virtually nothing with her images for three decades. Then a 2001 symposium on the festival reunited her with many of the figures from the event, and gave her a chance to mine their experiences and use their recollections – during panel discussions and in interviews – to flesh out a book proposal that finally saw print only a few months ago.

"I loved meeting the members of The Blues Project," Mayes told me. "I had met David Cohen several years earlier, and I had heard him play in New York (first in the Blues Project and second in Country Joe and the Fish) and he was responsible for my attending the festival, a friend really. Andy Kulberg was wonderful (so sad he died of cancer last year), and so was Roy Blumenfeld. I never knew many musicians well in the 60's, except for Peter Albin who lived across the street on Center Street in the Haight. I worked for the Steve Miller band for about six months, doing their first album cover and touring with them. It was a lot of fun but no way for me to make a living...

"What was great at the symposium was discovering how much I liked these musicians as people, how intelligent and interesting they are, etc. The Blues Project guys...really impressed me. I thought, 'Oh, I should have known these people all along. Where have I been?'... I learned in Monterey that these musicians are the kinds of people I would prefer to know and wish I had known..."

To be sure, there is poignancy here, about chances missed and what might have been.

But you play the hand you're dealt. And if the book you do helps you to relive one of the most exciting events of your life – and bring it alive to a whole new generation – you are way ahead of the game.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

There's a whole generation of people who won't have a clue about the people who appear on the cover of Elaine Mayes' book. That's their problem.

©Elaine Mayes
The flashy clothes and the downtown attitude were only part of the Jimi Hendrix experience. Man, could he play the guitar. Maye's in-performance portrait captures this doomed artist perfectly.

©Elaine Mayes.
Backstage, two members of a group called The Paupers hang out. Mayes' color shot was made with color infrared film and filters to evoke, she said, an LSD trip.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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