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Talkin' 'bout our generation
March 20, 2012 - Rick Chatenever
Photographer Peter Simon is one of those rare guys who figured out how to forge a career out of following his bliss.
He came of age during the political upheavals and cultural renaissance now known as the ’60s, capturing the newsmakers, the events and many of the era’s most iconic musical figures with his lens.
Getting access was undoubtedly aided by family connections. His sister, Carly Simon, was one of those musical icons herself; in publishing circles, his family name was followed by “& Schuster.” But looking back over the assignments he shot for a variety of publications, he offers a different explanation: “I was never a very aggressive person,” he said during a recent phone interview. “I always blended into scenes as they unfolded.”
He will share the images and the back stories when he presents “Through the Lens: A Life Filled with History, Friendships, Addictions” at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 29, at the Temple of Peace in Haiku. ($15 at the door; more details at 575-5220.)
Earlier next week, from 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday, he will be part of the Ram Dass Sunday Satsang at The Studio Marketplace in Haiku. The focus of his photos that afternoon will be “the Burgeoning Spiritual Culture of the ’70s,” including his long association with spiritual teacher Ram Dass. ($20 suggested donation; 575-9390 for details.)
Ram Dass, a groundbreaking drug experimenter at Harvard before becoming one of the pioneers introducing Eastern spirituality to American minds in the ’60s and ’70s, is one of the many links tying photojournalist Simon to the Valley Isle.
Simon first visited in the ’70s. “I just fell in love with the place. I live on Martha’s Vineyard, and it felt like it was my home away from home,” he says.
Discovering Makena’s clothing-optional Little Beach was another plus, “but the most compelling reason is my guru, Ram Dass, lives there.”
A right-place, right-time sense runs through his autobiographical, lavishly illustrated coffee table book, “I and Eye — Pictures of My Generation,” published in 2001.
His personal account of growing up the gawky youngest sibling of three strong, talented sisters before coming of age in the ’60s parallels the emergence of a whole new generation fueled by idealism, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll … and the illusion that their youth was eternal.
His striking black-and-white photos recall peace marches, scenes of injustice and political figures ranging from Robert Kennedy to Robert McNamara. They share space in the pages of his book with portraits of some the greatest legends of those times, caught in the act of making music.
Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jim Morrison, the Grateful Dead, Mick Jagger, Carly Simon … The list goes on and on before heading for the reggae world of Jamaica.
While he knew his way around the concert spotlights and the backstage dressing rooms, Simon became bored with his increasingly corporate fast-lane career. In 1970 he headed out for the countryside and communal living that emphasized “a more natural, holistic way of life.”
The mirror in which he looks at himself offers a prismatic view of the social change swirling around him. In the early stages, drugs were an enhancement — “Drugs made me joyous in my life, able to appreciate every nuance, every dewdrop.”
The drugs blossomed into the spiritual path revealed by teachers like Ram Dass. But it all changed on that fateful September morning in 2001, when the World Trade Center attacks not only shook the foundations of American society, but also canceled the high-profile release of Simon’s book.
That sent Simon into serious depression and triggered a new addiction, alcohol, which wound up sending him to jail, and then rehab.
It will all be there in the reminiscences of the chronicler of the era when the medium became the message and “I and Eye” blended into the same thing.
“The last part of my lecture brings it full circle,” he says.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.
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Ram Dass meditating in his van, 1977. Photo by Peter Simon