(Originally published in The California Aggie)
A doctoral candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo named Roberta Price applied for a grant in 1969 to travel west. She was to document the hippie communes that were springing up in the deserts of New Mexico and Colorado.
Price got the grant and headed out, but there was just one problem.
“I didn’t even have a very good camera,” Price laughed. “Once I got the grant I went out [and] bought a camera, so for the first summer when I was traveling around I really didn’t know if my pictures were coming out. I just took pictures.”
The pictures did turn out well, and 42 years later, it’s finally time for Price to share them with the world. An exhibition of Price’s photographs, called Across the Great Divide: A Photo Chronicle of the Counterculture, opened at the Nelson Gallery last Thursday and will be on display until May 22.
UC Davis is the first stop in a national tour of Price’s work, which coincides with the publishing of her photography book of the same name. At the conclusion of the tour, Price will turn her archives over to the Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, where they will be preserved and digitized for future study.
Despite being outsiders, Price and her then-partner, David, were given nearly unrivaled access to the Huerfano Valley communes of hippies and other counterculture participants who endeavored to drop out of mass culture and build their own self-sufficient utopian communities.
“They were pretty receptive because we were young, in our early 20s, we looked a little cleaner and had a working vehicle. We obviously were not back-to-the-land folk but we were kindred spirits,” Price said. “We were let in a lot of places where a lot of other photographers weren’t allowed.”
Price documented the everyday life of the commune members that summer, and by the following year she and David had moved to Libre, a commune in Colorado. They stayed there for seven years as Price continued to photograph the people, their homes and their rugged way of life.
Price said life in the commune was not for the faint at heart. Members built their own houses out of found materials and relied on few modern luxuries. Looking back, she said, the differences between the suburban life she was used to and life at Libre were great.
“We were very coddled, baby-boomer kids, and they had us mixing mud and hauling water, [using] trucks that didn’t work, chopping wood. In some of the photos you can see the amount of work we were expending. It was not a couch potato scene,” Price said.
UC Davis professor and architectural historian Simon Sadler is guest-curating the exhibit. Price reached out to him after reading some of his work on communes of the 1960s, and after seeing her photographs, Sadler suggested she bring them to UC Davis.
“What we get when we see Roberta’s pictures is a view from the inside, with the details of everyday life: domestic life, people looking after kids, cooking, building,” Sadler said. “For me the pictures work because you can tell they’re taken by an insider, not just someone passing through. There’s really something quite poetic about it.”
Sadler said the architecture of the commune structures is especially representative of counterculture ideals and practices, including self-sufficiency, rejection of suburban culture and drug use. Price’s photos depict houses of all shapes and sizes, made out of such materials as car parts and other recycled materials.
“There is that sense that you’re looking at something that was built on acid,” Sadler said. “When they built their shelters they would be built according to whatever special sense of the place these people might be getting, [and] maybe because they’re on drugs they would get a sort of vision.”
Price said she hopes her photos are viewed as honest portrayals of the counterculture movement – a movement she feels has never quite been accurately understood, though it continues to inspire activism for social equality, foreign policy and even environmentalism, she feels has never quite been accurately understood.
“It occupies a historical niche somewhere between a pernicious social virus and an amusing Halloween costume. I don’t think those times should be idealized,” she said. “I think the pictures give you an opportunity to just look at the people and feel a connection with them without a big media corporation or a professor telling you what to think about them.”
Erin Elder, an art historian, curator and friend of Price, said the 42-year-old photographs are still relevant to young people today. After all, Libre was started by 22-year-olds.
“That vision and naïveté and strength of spirit is so profound, [especially] to see how young they are,” Elder said. “Sure, they’re wearing funny clothes and the pictures are a little faded, but they’re almost exactly the same people as anybody in college today.”
Sadler said that the message viewers are supposed to glean from Across the Great Divide is open for interpretation. At a recent dinner with Price and Nelson Gallery director Renny Pritikin, he said, it seemed the photographs represented an experience that is more relevant today than ever.
“You could tell for them there was some urgency, as if they felt there was something they’d discovered in the 60s that they want us to know about today. But what is that thing? Even now I can’t quite place my finger on it,” Sadler said. “Except to say something like this: that those guys of that generation are trying to persuade my generation and your generation that it is possible to think naturally about things, to make connections and to have the guts to act or drop out.”
View Across the Great Divide through May 22 at the Nelson Gallery at Nelson Hall (formerly the University Club) on Old Davis Road next to Wyatt Pavilion. Gallery hours are Saturday to- Thursday, 11 a.m to 5 p.m. For more information, go to nelsongallery.ucdavis.edu or robertaprice.com.