Melancholy Portraits From a Summer of Love in Decline

1967 was the Summer of Love, the apex of hippie culture’s most positive vibrations. The influences of Beat authors, psychedelics, anti-war and anti-consumerist leanings fed an influx of hopeful, young people into San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood. Free medical clinics, community activism and the promise of loved-up communal living drew in tens of thousands of teens, runaways, students and people hoping to “turn up, tune in and drop out”.

Media attention – partly focused on mass events like that year’s Monterey Pop festival, but also on the city’s efforts to stop the influx – fanned interest, and by ‘68 the Haight scene was already falling apart. The neighbourhood would over time become a byword for neglect, addiction and – for many – the hippie movement’s failures. It was on the cusp of that disintegration that Elaine Mayes, photojournalist and Haight resident, created a series of portraits that until recently were largely unseen.

A new book The Haight-Ashbury Portraits 1967-1968, published by Damiani brings the work together for the first time. Here, Kevin Moore, the curator of San Francisco’s McEvoy collection and the book’s editor, gets into the work’s importance and the implosion of the hippie dream.

VICE: In your foreword, you describe the situation in the Haight at the time the photos were taken; the start of its decline.  Kevin Moore: Yes, the word I used was “downslide”. The summer of love was ’67. That was the year of Monterey Pop – which was a very peaceful, proto-Woodstock sort of festival, with a lot of bands, big musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, but also Indian musicians and folksy-spiritual artists too. What Elaine would say is that the hippie movement was – or is – a media-driven movement. The publicity from ‘67 drew in a lot of kids to San Francisco, and what they found when they arrived wasn’t some blissed out utopia, but harder drugs, unwed mothers, flop houses.

If you look at the photos of William Gedney or read Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, you can see they have a pretty ambivalent attitude to it all. It looked pretty awful to them. I think Elaine, when she was doing this series, was already witnessing the reality of it all.

Eugene, Panhandle, Haight – Ashbury, 1968.

Did she see herself as part of this community, or just close to it? Being from San Francisco, and living in the Haight, she knew the reality was different from the media’s depiction. I think she was deeply sympathetic toward the people. She was almost stationed there as an objective eye. They were people she saw around the area. She’s definitely among them, but she was a little older, about 30 at the time. The people in the book are all 16, 17, 18-years-old…

It’s amazing how young some of them are – to have made this sort of life decision. About the age I was brave enough to go to college, they’d gotten on a Greyhound Bus to San Francisco with no money. It reminds me that it was a time when people took bigger risks. There was less to lose, maybe. The US was pretty fucked up at that time. There was more of a malaise that set in in the 70s, but this was definitely the beginning of it – the fallout from this cultural experiment.

Couple with Child, Golden Gate Park, August 1968.

Was she making this project as a journalist, or for personal reasons? I think it was a very self-conscious first step into being an artist photographer. That may also be why she didn’t release it until now. Like a lot of artists, she maybe has some trepidation about releasing something so personal. I think it’s the most personal series she ever worked on.

I think what she was trying to do was create a very objective portrait of that culture at that moment. She approached it in this very direct “You pose for me, present who you are”, sort of way. I think Elaine’s approach was clinical. She didn’t try to capture a particular mood. She just looked at it head on and let the subjects speak for themselves – more of a journalist, but a very receptive one. I think she was collecting data, with the whole “let the subject speak for itself” approach tied to that hippie, West Coast outlook.

Frank French, 16, Panhandle, Haight – Ashbury, 1968.

Perhaps thanks to hindsight, a lot of the images feel sad, or desperate. Like, you can already sense things going awry. Most of what you see or read about at the time about the hippie phenomenon portrays it as sloshing between utopian and depressing. I think it was both of those things.

I think this work is a subtle mix. There’s a lot of range in the photos between people who do indeed look lost or troubled and others who just look like typical, breezy, easygoing young people. There’s that fashion-y, sexy side to it too. But I think that’s a facade. You see these eruptions of sadness and melancholy and alienation. In fact, in almost every single one of these photos you can see a bit of that. I think that’s what makes it a great body of work.

Group on Stairs with Cat (Shari Maynard, 19, Red Pappas, 18, Stefanie Wyatt, 17, Michael, 20, and Sean Herrick, 18), Haight Street, August 1968.

How do you feel about the work in the context of today? I  think we want a lot from these portraits – we want to see some sort of youth revolution, to see hope or a movement that’s ready to assault the problems of the world. People feel desperately right now that there’s a need to get off this capitalist suicide mission we are on, to change the way people socialise with each other.

If you look at the histories of the individuals and the movement, they didn’t revolutionise. The hippy movement turned into an aesthetic. But I do think that we are peering into these pictures now, wanting them to divulge some secret that helps us in our terrible contemporary moment. That’s appealing.

John C. Maynard (JC) in Front of Drugstore Wall, Ashbury Street, 1968.
Linda, Straight Theater, 1968.
Shenandoah Jordan, Super Adaptoid, Lady Glorious, Matthew, and Steve Culligan in a Convertible,Haight Street, August 13, 1968​.
Katrinka Haraden (Trinka), 19, Haight Street, 1968.

The Haight-Ashbury Portraits 1967-1968 by Elaine Mayes is available now, published by Damiani.