Lisa Law. There’s one in every family, in every group of friends, sidling around the edges of things, marked only by that distinctive shutter-hiss-snap and white-bright flash. The one with the camera. The one who keeps the records–the celebrations, the turning points, the events. The person to whom the others turn for the evidence of their lives. Lisa Law has been the one with the camera for as long as she can remember. Her friends, however, were folks like the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Peter Fonda, Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin and Andy Warhol, and their moments were, well, the ’60s. The Human Be-In. The Haight-Ashbury. Various communes. The Monterey Pop Festival and, of course, its more famous stepchild, Woodstock.For some, the ’60s are an obsession. For Law, it’s a profession. Hundreds of photos has Law, thousands of photos, some of which are collected in a book–“Flashing on the ’60s”(Chronicle Books, 1987)–and a documentary of the same name. But beyond that, Law is her own cottage industry, the unofficial archivist of the counterculture. If you need a picture of Vietnam War protest marches or bikers in the Panhandle or Dylan in the early years or a community of teepees, Law’s the one you call. Why, if the Smithsonian ever wanted an exhibit of those turbulent years, Lisa Law would be a natural resource. And they did, and she was. “A Visual Journey: Photographs by Lisa Law” opened last month at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where it will remain through March. Sixty-three photos are on display; an additional 148 are available through the archives. “The Smithsonian,” Law says. “Unbelievable. Two and a half million people will see these pictures. What a trip”.
It All Began With a Psychedelic Bus.
As with many trips, it began with a psychedelic–a psychedelic bus named Silver. Three years ago, Law offered her newly restored hippie bus to the museum; along with the offer, she sent her book and a packet of photos. The venerable institution replied: The bus is too big, but the photos we want; do you have more? Well, yes. They dispatched William Yeingst to comb through Law’s collection. “This is a wonderful overview, from one woman’s perspective, of the counterculture,” says Yeingst, a museum specialist who, with Shannon Parish, curated the show. “Her pictures evoke many emotions, and there has been a full range of emotional responses.” “They went through everything,” Law says. “Photos, slides, my proof sheets. It took three days. He wanted a lot of stuff I hadn’t ever really considered–lifestyle images, natural childbirth. I shot everything that was happening. “I’m not a photographer,” she adds, all evidence to the contrary. “I’m an activist with a camera”. Seated in a conference room overlooking the streets of Santa Monica, Law is an image of a force at rest. Although she lives in New Mexico, she is co-owner of Global Communications Network, a Santa Monica-based telecommunications company. She looks interdisciplinary rather than contradictory, against the streamlined formal leather chair in a loose black tunic and pants that are edged with color that could be tie-dyed but aren’t quite. There is a lot of silver wrapping wrist and finger, dangly earrings and the hair is still hippie long but gelled a bit. Her face has spent much of its time in the sun and her eyes are vivid, her gaze direct. Her work bears out her sound-bite bit of self-analysis. Law’s photos chronicle the psychosocial upheaval in a very personal way. “The pictures follow my life,” she explains. “My life just happened to follow the movement.” Born in Hollywood and raised in Burbank, Law’s career as lens on a generation began in the early ’60s when her work for music manager Frank Werber drew her within shooting range of dawning stars, including the Kingston Trio, the Beatles, the Lovin’ Spoonful and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was Werber who gave Law her first Pentax camera, a fact she acknowledges gratefully every chance she gets.
They Went to Live in a Magic Castle
She met her future husband, Tom Law, backstage at a Peter, Paul and Mary concert; he was their road manager. In 1965, they moved into the Castle, a Los Feliz mansion that became a hostel to the hip and happening, among them Dylan, Nico, Reed, Barry McGuire and Andy Warhol. She took all their pictures. After that, her life reads like a guided tour to the ’60s: She was there at the protests, the be-ins, the love-ins, the concerts. And she took pictures. She was there at the ashrams, the hot springs, the clubs. She tried communal living–“to hard,” she says now. She lived in a teepee. And she took pictures. She and her husband finally settled down with their soon-to-be four children on a farm in Truchas, NM. “I had my babies and got back to nature,” she says. “I baked bread, grew my own wheat, had ducks and chickens, the whole bit. I sold vegetables to the neighbors. We made applesauce and jellies and lived on food stamps. We were trying a great experiment with a little help from the state. I loved it. It was absolutely fantastic.” And, of course, she took pictures. When her children–Dhana Pilar, Solar Sat, Sunday Peaches and Jesse Lee Rainbow–were still small, she and her husband split up. “He was into free love,” she says briefly. “I was not.” For a while, she and the children returned to Los Angeles, where Law became a professional photographer, shooting weddings and rock bands. “I did a lot of album covers,” she says. She raised her kids, she built a house in New Mexico, she put together the book and the documentary, she lectured. In between she became, she says, “the historian who keeps it all together.” “Lisa has just fantastic photos,” says Tom McKnight, who has worked with Law as a designer and buyer for the Hard Rock Cafe, where many of her photos appear. “Other photographers have cool stuff, but Lisa was involved in it all–she set up the kitchen at Woodstock–that’s what makes her pictures so different.” Lately, that role has been in much demand. One reason she is in Los Angeles this autumn afternoon is to work as a consultant on a Lynda Obst NBC miniseries called “The ’60s.” “So many of the iconic photos of the time are Lisa’s,” Obst says. “She had been everywhere. It’s really amazing. I wanted her blessing and her ideas, and she gave both with incredible generosity.” Law was sent an early version of the script to check for anachronisms, and she’s spent some time OKing sets for the Hog Farm, a late ’60s commune in New Mexico. “I had my own chair and my own assistant,” Law says, laughing. “It was very cool. I changed some things, like they didn’t have plastic plates at Woodstock; they were paper.” And, of course, she took pictures. Many of which Obst then bought. “Lisa really has an eye for the spirit,” Obst says. “She watches for the moment that the spirit is released and then captures it”. This isn’t her first consulting gig. She gave a cultural once-over to an Andrei Codrescu documentary and Oliver Stone’s “The Doors”. “Meg Ryan asked me how women were treated in the ’60s. I said, ‘Not very well.’ ” One of the reasons communal living did not work, she adds, was the unequal division of labor–the women were expected to do everything. There is something regal about her, despite the almost constant sense of self-narration. She takes herself seriously, takes what many now consider a phase of mass adolescence very seriously. “The spirit of the ’60s was the idea of being able to choose one’s own lifestyle,” she says. “We made mistakes–free love didn’t work, communal living didn’t work–but we were experimenting. Look at the world now–you see so many health stores. That’s from the ’60s. People are getting more holistic, they’re embracing Eastern religions, women are having natural childbirth and nursing, that’s all from the ’60s.”
She Has the Ability to Market Herself
Law is not a throwback wandering around with flowers in her hair. To keep the career she has chosen going requires a certain persistence and a relentless ability to market herself, both of which she has. When the Smithsonian approached her, she had to find a way to pay. So she contacted her friend John Paul DeJoria, CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems. He bought the photos and donated them and Law happily doled out free shampoo and conditioner at the luncheon held for those who made the exhibit possible. “J.P. has always supported me,” she says. “So I promote him. He sent me to El Salvador in 1990 with Pastors for Peace, and I handed out shampoo to all the Salvadorans.” But Law is a working, rather than nostalgic, activist. When she fans out issues of Hemp Times bedecked with her photos of friends Dennis Hopper, Roger Daltrey, Michelle Phillips, Peter Fonda and Graham Nash, she speaks without irony. She sees the legalization of hemp as a solution to a multitude of ills. She believes the Big Mountain Weaving Project, in which blankets are sold to make their creators self-sufficient, will help change the world. And when she talks about always taking her children with her, including to a Sun Dance at which the youngsters ecstatically “gave flesh,” her sense of urgency, of commitment, is palpable. “In other countries, they have vision quests to become a man or woman, to prove yourself. There’s not much to do in our culture, so you have people out there who feel they aren’t worth much. I took my kids everywhere so they could see that the work is real.” If her life were a movie, at least one of her children would be working for a Republican senator or as a corporate lawyer. And certainly they would have changed those names. But here in real life, one daughter runs a teen center, another a Hare Krishna temple, one son is a massage therapist and a horticulturist in Brazil attempting to save the rain forest, the other is a Swing dance instructor and a massage therapist. She has made herself a living example of commitment. Law plans to start work on a museum in Santa Fe that will celebrate–what else?–the ’60s. So she’s rounding up the usual suspects–Wavy Gravy, Peter Yarrow, DeJoria. “People are all excited,” she says. “Outside, we’re going to have a teepee and a replica of New Buffalo commune. Inside, all sorts of pictures and exhibits.” And the centerpiece? Silver, of course, she says, laughing. “I’ve gotta find a place for that bus.”
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