In 1967, Chicago-based photojournalist Steve Schapiro became famous for chronicling The Hippie in the Haight. He traveled to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to hang out with scores of turned-on, tuned-in dropouts. Now, nearly 50 years later, Schapiro has revisited the American hippie counterculture, finding it alive and well — ecstatically, insuperably so — especially at Rainbow Gatherings, festivals like Burning Man, and other patchouli-scented hippie meccas.
Bliss: Transformational Festivals and the Neo-Hippie, published by Powerhouse Books, compiles two years’ worth of Schapiro’s photographs of deliriously smiling, often naked Bliss Ninnies, a lesser-known subgroup of neo-hippies. Instead of using hallucinogens to achieve higher states of consciousness like their ’60s forebears, Bliss Ninnies focus on ecstatic dancing, meditating, chanting, and vegan eating as paths to spiritual enlightenment.
Though you won’t find peace signs or tie-dye in many contemporary fashion magazines, the neo-hippie subculture has seeped into the American mainstream. You can find it in Miley Cyrus’s rebranding herself as a “happy hippie” or in satires of organic farms on Portlandia. New Age-y healing techniques, like crystals and Reiki, are as popular as ever. There are far more communes in the United States today than there were in the ’60s. Even Wall Street execs and tech bros meditate now. “There is a new, gaping need in us to have meaning,” one New York–based Reiki master told Vanity Fair of this second-wave New Age, the “spiritual awakening” of the digital generation.
What if all of these dabblers went whole hog with their hippie-ish interests? In Schapiro’s pictures, we see what happens when such practices are taken to near-fanatical extremes.
From 2012 to 2014, the photographer traveled to festivals around the US and Europe with his son, Theophilus Donaghue, himself a Bliss Ninny. They visited the Mystic Garden in Oregon, the Rainbow Gathering and the Mount Shasta festival in California, Burning Man in Nevada, the Electric Forest in Michigan, and others.
To a non–Bliss Ninny, the scenes pictured here look like parodies of hippie culture, fulfilling every stereotype of the “Kumbaya”-singing granola cruncher. There are guys with dreadlocks hula-hooping, “cuddle puddles” in mud, body-painted women dancing in drum circles, bearded old naked men who look like Gandalf the Rainbow, and plenty of other things that would make any self-respecting unenlightened office worker cringe. Or maybe you’ll “take these photos in and turn them into your life,” as 79-year-old peace activist Wavy Gravy recommends in the book’s afterward — since, after all, “We are all the same person trying to shake hands with ourself.” Or something.