Books

Photos of 1968 California Show a Surreal Way of Life

Dennis Stock’s California is that of an outsider, shooting the most obvious aspects of West Coast life against the diverse, strange, and fascinating backdrop of the late 1960s.

California Trip: Photography by Dennis Stock, Anthology Editions, 2019 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.” — Joan Didion, “The White Album”

I’ve never been able to pin down what it is about California that creates its dreamers. Is it stereotypes that attract a certain persona, the expansive variety of its landscape, the mystique of Mexican culture, or the omnipresent glamour — real or imagined — of Hollywood? A new publication from Anthology Editions titled California Trip presents the work of Magnum photographer Dennis Stock, whose photographs suggest that he asked himself these very same questions.

Dennis Stock, “Santa Monica” (1968)

Spending five weeks driving up and down California’s highways in 1968, as hippie counterculture descended into what Joan Didion refers to as “the paranoia of the time,” the 99 black-and-white photographs in the book take us from the delivery trucks of San Francisco’s Chinatown to the elaborate costuming on the set of Charlton Heston’s Planet of the Apes. A New Yorker known best for his photographs of James Dean, Stock saw California as an outsider, shooting the most obvious aspects of West Coast life — car culture, palm trees, surfers, Hells Angels, bathing beauties, Berkeley hippies — against the diverse, strange, and fascinating backdrop of the late 1960s.

Dennis Stock, “Barstow” (1968)

Look at the photographs for longer, however, and they shift away from the obvious to collectively tell the story of California’s surreal way of life, where a multitude of contrasting visuals create a fluid line between the real, the aspirational, and the imagined. Consider a row of iconic palm trees framed by industrial oil pumps in a residential neighborhood, a Planet of the Apes extra casually waiting at a bus stop in full costume, or a construction hat sitting abandoned in the middle of a highway in barren Barstow. “Surrealism was everywhere, the juxtapositions of relative levels of reality projected chaos,” Stock writes in the introduction, describing what attracted his gaze during those transient five weeks and setting the book’s overall tone.

Dennis Stock, “Oil Wells and Golf Course” (1968)

The opening spread of photographs, for example, contrasts an older couple dressed in almost Victorian garb with a beautiful man and woman sitting topless and bareback atop a horse. Shot near the McCoy commune in Novato, the latter couple could easily have been members of McCoy’s Chosen Family — their expressions remind me of a photograph of Roman Polanski with Sharon Tate, both topless, as the Polanski’s and the bareback riders gaze into the camera as if they’ve discovered enlightenment. On the following page, an aerial photograph of Playa Del Rey, an expansive strip of sand and beach that stretches out northwest of the LAX airport, captures the looming shadow of a departing plane over a lone beach-goer. California is a place, Stock suggests, where the mundane rests uncomfortably alongside the fantastic.

Dennis Stock, “Playa Del Rey” (1968)

Much of the book is dedicated to contrasting the hippie lifestyle with the status quo. Idealized photographs of scantily clad, beach-lounging women, from Venice to Santa Monica, seem to fulfill Stock’s fantasy of California girls. A young Berkeley student, barefoot and holding a single daisy, stands in front of a Brutalist academic building, the epitome of hippie innocence. Acknowledging the conservative majority, a photograph of a sign reading “No Bare Feet” evokes the favorite refrain in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019): “fucking hippies.” 

Dennis Stock, “Berkeley Campus” (1968)

Though few and far between, the political overtones in Stock’s photographs of minority communities add more dimension to this era of unrest. Somehow missing the Black Power movement so active in California at the time, Stock focuses instead on Watts, depicting what seems to be the everyday culture of the neighborhood. A little boy strolls past the iconic Watts towers in one photograph, while in another, a delivery truck is emblazoned with murals of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesse Jackson. Mexican people, even more invisible in the book, make a brief appearance in a photograph of two children playing on the porch of a rundown home in East Los Angeles.

Dennis Stock, “East Los Angeles” (1968)

Fifty years after the 1960s came to their official and dubious end with the Manson Family murders, this summer was a moment of looking back. Stock’s representation of California is framed somewhere between the meandering remembrances of Tarantino’s blockbuster and Joan Didion’s iconic “White Album” essay full of dark memories of a time when culture fundamentally shifted. As the best documentary works do, California Trip lets us draw our own conclusions, contemplate our own prejudices, and muse over our own ideas of sun-drenched nostalgia.

Dennis Stock, “Santa Monica” (1968)

California Trip by Dennis Stock (2019) is published by Anthology Editions and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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