Friday, July 10, 2009

Woodstock Remembered

Back in 1969, I was showing my photographic portfolio to Business Week’s photo editor when he said,
“Would you like to photograph a rock concert? It will take place tomorrow in Bethel, New York.”

I had never photographed rock concerts. I didn’t even have a clear idea of what a rock concert was. I photographed mostly wild people in wild environments, from deserts to rain forests, for such magazines as National Geographic. But I never turned down an assignment. I did the right thing, for at Woodstock I would photograph wild people too.

I realized that as soon as I arrived, driven by the writer who would report for Business Week. We found the traffic backed up some nine or ten miles. Young people crowded over vehicles that included psychedelically painted buses and vans, none of which were moving anymore. There was no way of knowing how long they would be stranded, and so I got out of the car to start shooting. I told the writer that I would be back soon.

The traffic did not move another inch for the rest of the August-15-to-18 extended week end. And I could not find the car and the writer again. My luggage, which included much of my film, would unfortunately remain out of my reach the whole time. So I spent the next four days carrying nothing more than a small camera bag with only a few rolls of black-and-white film--what Business Week had asked me to use. This forced me to think at least twice before shooting a picture, lest I would run out of film before the end.

Now, 40 years later, and though I must be one of the few who was not touching marijuana, I can’t remember some things, as for example where and how I slept during those few nights, even though the driving rainstorms should have made the memory indelible. But then, with so many memorable experiences cramming my small brain, this one may just not have found room enough for itself.

But I do remember how ill-equipped I was for this particular adventure. I carried no tent, no sleeping bag or blanket, no jacket, nor even a sweater. In the rain forests of the Amazon and Borneo I had always been able at least to change into dry clothes at the end of the day. And at night I had thrown a sheet of plastic over my hammock. But at Woodstock, day and night, for much of the four days, I had to walk around and sleep in soaking wet shirt and pants and muddy shoes. And it was cold at night. I did not eat much either, considering the little food there was, and the long lines outside the makeshift stands.

But what an amazing spirit there was. How contagious love was. The kids called me “brother” and asked me to smoke pot with them. And then there was the music, nearly non-stop. These were other times. Few people were overweight. No children were.

Thanks to my photographs there are things that I remember more clearly. Santana’s band, for example, though not the many other musicians, as I focused my attention on the mind-boggling crowd. The hundreds of thousands of young men and women whose faces radiated sometimes as if they had just seen Jesus Christ himself. The stoned naked man who hung high on a music tower to better expose himself. The sleepers packed like sardines at night. The restless men who kicked the sleepers’ shoes away from them as they walked around. And then, in the morning after a night’s rain, the kids who kept sleeping as if this could save them from dealing with the mud baths into which they had been slowly sinking (hundreds abandoned their blankets and sleeping bags stuck under the mud). And the many who at the end were forced to walk back shoeless to their cars.

I had not been a fan of hippies. I had seen them living sloppily on one or two dollars a day in places like Marrakesh. But they understood the futility, injustice, and cruelty of war. They knew that you could not buy happiness with money. They lived with open arms. At Woodstock I started seeing them differently. And now that greed has plunged the world into misery, I can’t help thinking that we were better off with the hippies. At least they owned some truths. And they were much better people than the financial predators that left us with an uncertain future.