Just as August heatwaves recede into the gloom and damp of autumn, the ‘Summer of Love’ was never going to last forever. Despite the fairly widespread perception of the 60s as a time of halcyon days all draped in kaftans, oil projections, flower headdresses and the like, this is clearly at best the experience of a small minority, and perhaps more accurately, something of a myth.
Perhaps the place that’s most mythologised is Haight-Ashbury, the San Francisco district that became the informal HQ of 60s counterculture. Dubbed ‘Hashbury’ by Hunter S Thompson and the birthplace of bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, the area became known for its hippie communities and proclivity for LSD – a psychedelic haven for the ‘heads’ when the 1967 Summer of Love kicked off.
But things soon took a turn away from the bright hues of tie-dye and hallucinogen-induced fractals and towards something darker, and photographer Elaine Mayes was there to capture that sea change.
Mayes had made a name for herself photographing the rock stars and music scenes of the 1960s: she shot the Beatles in New York in 1964, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and countless others, as well as photographing that apotheosis of hippie hedonism, the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
And as the Summer of Love was becoming increasingly less, well, loving, she turned her lens on the young people in Haight-Ashbury during a time when “the hippie movement had turned from euphoria to harder drugs, and the Haight had become less of a blissed-out haven for young people seeking a better way of life than a halfway house for runaway teens”, as Damiani, the publisher of a new book of Mayes’ portraits, puts it.
Where her previous images had been more photojournalistic in style and approach, the series of more than 40 shots brought together in the book take a more formal, portrait-like approach.
She deliberately chose settings that were casual and familiar to her subjects, such as stoops, doorways, parks and interiors; giving them instructions to look right into the lens of her square-format camera, concentrate, and stay still, snapping the image as they exhaled.
Mayes also made sure her subjects were people familiar to her – a crucial tool in her bid to do away with clichés around hippie stereotypes and instead create more nuanced, unsentimental portraits.