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Profile / Lisa Law: The unofficial archivist of the
'60s counterculture

Back in a Flash

Lisa Law's Photos Captured the Essence of an Era--and She Remains Committed to Its Ideals

November 24, 1998|MARY MC NAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 tepees, 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 company that manufactures phone cards. 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 Leica, 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, Redding, David Crosby 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--"too hard," she says now. She lived in a tepee. And she took pictures.

She and her husband finally settled down with their soon-to-be four children on a farm in Truchas, N.M.

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