PHOTOBOOK REVIEWS, INTERVIEWS AND WRITE-UPS
ALONG WITH THE LATEST PHOTO-EYE NEWS

Social Media

Book Review: The Family Acid


Book Review The Family Acid By Roger Steffans Reviewed by Blake Andrews The old joke about the 1960s — If you remember it, you weren't there — might apply even better to California in the 1970s. After the button-down fifties and the turbulent sixties, the old guard had been rattled, then left behind on the east coast. The vacuum would soon be filled with Yuppies and wine bars, but for a period the future promised a fantasy haze of liberation. California was tabula rasa.

The Family Acid. 
By Roger Steffens. S_U_N, 2015.
 
The Family Acid
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

The Family Acid
Photographs by Roger Steffens. Texts by Kate and Devon Steffens.
S_U_N, 2015. 156 pp., 72 illustrations, 8x9½".


The old joke about the 1960s — If you remember it, you weren't there — might apply even better to California in the 1970s. After the button-down fifties and the turbulent sixties, the old guard had been rattled, then left behind on the east coast. The vacuum would soon be filled with Yuppies and wine bars, but for a period the future promised a fantasy haze of liberation. California was tabula rasa. Insert cultural explorations here: Bare feet, communes, open meadows, psychedelics, double exposures, float tanks, palm trees, sexual revolution, Laurel Canyon, and general excess.

Back to the joke. If Californians have forgotten the seventies, they have a good excuse: they were too busy living it. Yeah, that plus all the drugs. I write from personal experience. I spent the entire decade 1970-80 in California and I've forgotten most of it. My excuse is that I was just a kid then, elementary aged. Most incidents passed right through me and were quickly forgotten. By this point forty years later my memories have fragmented and compressed into a rough mental stew. Did any of it really happen? Don't ask me. Many details are lost, but I have a strong impression of the general vibe. California in the seventies was a magical time.

The Family Acid. By Roger Steffens. S_U_N, 2015.

Fortunately, some folks took time to document their surroundings. Roger Steffens, for one. He photographed seemingly nonstop on good old Kodachrome, amassing over 300,000 images to date over the course of his life (He is now 72 and living in Los Angeles). The Family Acid collects 133 of them in a book for the first time. The subjects stretch here and there into the 1980s or 60s, and sometimes to other locations, but by and large this is a book about California in the seventies. It captures the spirit of that period better than any photobook I've seen. It was a guy staring at the ocean sunset double exposed with flowers or a vanishing road. Or a six inch spliff or a kaleidoscope. Or something like that.

The Family Acid. By Roger Steffens. S_U_N, 2015.

Yes, if you don't remember California in the seventies, this book will remember it for you. These may be someone else's specific memories, but they'll suffice for the general era because Steffens immersed in it as fully as anyone. He was a sort of Zelig figure of the period, turning up in all sorts of opportune places and in the company of this or that important figure. From Vietnam Psych Ops to actor to carousing with Keith Richards to KCRW Host to salvaging Ron Kovic's memoir to introducing Paul Simon to African rhythms to the voice of Time-Warner audiobooks and the Museum of Tolerance to acclaimed reggae authority, his life has been one fortuitous happening after another. Six degrees of Roger Steffens would seemingly include most of the entertainment industry, plus a good chunk of general pop culture. "Why were he and mom driving the Mexican President around Los Angeles in a limo?" ruminates Kate Steffens in the book's afterward, grasping at her fading California memories. It's as good as question as any. Why? He was just there. Renaissance man, right guy, right place: California in the magical 1970s. And he shot the crap out of it.

The Family Acid. By Roger Steffens. S_U_N, 2015.

Steffens' slides were left unseen in storage for many years before being recently organized and scanned by his children Kate and Devon. The buried-archive-rediscovered story is a familiar pattern in photography. But this one has a contemporary twist, for it wasn't until Kate and Devon began posting their father's photos to Instagram that they hit a nerve with a wider audience. Perhaps people needed help remembering the decade. Maybe they were entranced by the undiscovered treasure hunt aspect. Or maybe it's just that the photographs were damned good. In any case, social media created a buzz. Within a year The Family Acid book was born.

The Family Acid. By Roger Steffens. S_U_N, 2015.

The subject matter alone might be enough to identify and romanticize this archive. But what sets it apart is the hazy approach. The snapshot aesthetic is not just tested but pushed to its limits. Two guys balancing on railroad tracks, a typewriter by a window, a bullfight? These are not the product of art-conscious ideology, but merely an inquisitive eye behind a roving camera. Look, record, file away, keep living… The selections include a healthy dose of double exposures which lift the trove into surreal territory, and the color gamut has the slightly oversaturated yellowing feel of an old Coke ad. They scream nostalgia but it isn't sappy. It's curious. It's open. These photos would like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony… If you remember that jingle, you will like this book. Each picture carries a narrative caption by Roger Steffens (very entertaining, and filed in the back as endnotes), and it's all wrapped in tidy SUN-books bleached orange binding. All in all, the production works extremely well.

The Family Acid. By Roger Steffens. S_U_N, 2015.

The book's title references both family lore and the tenor of the times. "A lot of people have called us various iterations of the 'blank' on acid, like 'the Waltons on acid,'" said Kate in a recent interview. The word Acid is important, because the photos have a decidedly psychedelic bent, and this was, after all, a drug-charged period. But let's not overlook the Family aspect. Members of Roger Steffens' immediate nuclear family appear in a few photos — although not Kate or Devon, surprisingly — but the real meaning of family expands that word to include the friends, associates, and characters surrounding Steffens. They are family in the true seventies California sense, and this is their family album, full of faces and memories, and rooted in history.—BLAKE ANDREWS

Purchase Book

BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

Read more book reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment