“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Then the famous line goes off A tale of two cities by Charles Dickens.
The same could be said of the Haight-Ashbury during what editor Kevin Moore describes as “the downturn of the Summer of Love” in the intro to a new collection of striking images from rock & roll photographer Elaine Mayes.
Haight-Ashbury Portraits 1967-1968 documents late ’60s San Francisco—a tumultuous time for the city and the country, when much of the wide-eyed optimism of the hippie movement bumped up against hardship and addiction. The newly released 100-page compendium features images of smiling and barefoot youngsters interspersed with images of somber single mothers clutching babies in spaces that range from barren to chaotic.
A portrait of a bespectacled couple sitting in the grass with a naked child stands in stark contrast to a composed and hopeful family portrait of an interracial couple with their child in Golden Gate Park. At times, the images provide a vision of a better future. In other cases, they struggle with poverty and disillusionment. All of them struggle with the far-reaching legacy of free love and the counterculture of the 1960s.
“She [Mayes] then the consequences of the lifestyle,” said Moore, the book’s editor and artistic director and curator of the photography nonprofit FotoFocus, which funded it. “A lot of those kids [had] crashed into flophouses, had sex and drugs, and they started to show signs of a breakdown.”
But Moore is quick to note that Mayes—who captured many of the book’s images while living in a commune on Central Street and tagging along with Washington Post journalist Nicholas von Hoffman – did not seek to pass judgment on his subjects. Rather, she sought to show them as they were.
Shooting in a more photojournalistic style, Mayes would find his subjects, ask them to pose themselves however they wanted, instruct them to take a breath, exhale, and then release the shutter, Moore describes.
“She wanted them to present themselves as they wanted to be presented,” Moore said. “She was trying something that was very calm and kind of a peaceful moment in the middle of what she saw as pretty chaotic lives.”
So while Joan Didion found that “the center didn’t hold” in her assessment of the Haight-Ashbury, Mayes may have found some calm in the eye of the storm, or at least framed the chaos of the Summer of Love in 1967 as a universal pain point— growing up and losing your innocence.
“There’s a sense of potential and failure at the same time,” Moore said. “And if you go almost frame-by-frame, sometimes in a single frame, you can see both of these edges of this particular moment that’s kind of sandwiched between a year of great optimism and beauty and this other kind of harder reality, that sets in ’68, ’69.”
Ultimately, Moore observes, even more than half a century later, the young people depicted in Mayes’ photos exude a certain timelessness. Whether it’s their cocky optimism or eerie fashion statements, Mayes’ subjects still look and feel eternally young—their hopeful and hopeless youth crystallized for decades to come.
“It’s just this precious moment in the middle of two extreme, different realities,” Moore said.
Available in local and online bookstores