On the evening of February 23, the Haight Street Art Center welcomed guests into a 1960s time capsule punctuated by peasant blouses and shags. A portal into San Francisco’s past, the night was a love letter to the region — as a people, as a place, as an idea.
Free to the public through May 28, “The Haight-Ashbury Experience and the Pursuit of Happiness: The Photography of Herb Greene” is a retrospective to the famed Bay Area photographer. Greene, who started out in the 1960s, captured the early aughts of the San Francisco art movement. Before the world knew “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Herbie,” as his friends call him, knew Janice. He captured the Warlocks on camera before they changed their name to the Grateful Dead.
In this way, reflecting on his time capturing a now iconic era feels like reflecting on the work of a prophet. But there was no clairvoyance needed for him to know that his time in San Francisco was the precursor to something big. Greene’s creative vision and keen eye for greatness was enough.
It was Greene’s rock photography that put him on the map, and the Haight Art Center has no problem giving the people what they want. The main exhibition hall is a maze of the Bay Area greats. Neon orange accessories and matching denim jumpsuits complete Greene’s photo of Sly and the Family Stone, finding that perfect blend of nonchalant poise and glittering laughter. Across from them, Grace Slick lounges on a chair wistfully in front of the rest of the Jefferson Airplane, her hand draped over a bell bottom clad knee. And while the two pictures are opposites in tone (Sly beaming, Slick dreaming), it’s clear both photos came from Greene’s camera. Greene’s work, regardless of tone, always has an air of easy going repose.
This is no more apparent than in his photography of Janis Joplin. Known for her booming voice and earth shattering grit, Greene’s photos of her remind us to wonder all over again how such a powerful sound came out of such a playful demeanor. Greene was a good friend of Joplin, and his photos of her show his work at its most intimate. In one, she hugs a dog while grinning for the camera, a black ushanka adding a sense of whimsy to the scene. Her smile is a bit mischievous, yet warm and inviting. The type of smile only a friend could truly make permanent in film.
The real stars of the galleries, however, are not the ones who are firmly planted in rock history. Rather, it is the documentative photos Greene took of everyday people walking through Haight. Among them, a young boy spreading his arms as if to take flight, beaming brighter than the sun he could touch. Two twentysomethings perched on their stoops, gazing into the camera as if they were the real people watchers. A cowboy hat-touting, gas station glasses-wearing, cigar-wielding man gripping his belt, a self-confident smile dawning on his face.
The ease Greene’s celebrity subjects possessed in front of his camera is often attributed to his friendships and charm. Yet, it is in these photos, so kindly un-star studded, that his craft shines. He knew how to capture things as they really were, so much so that an onlooker can sense that same assumed familiarity. Though separated by time, the people in the photos and the gallery attendees are made neighbors through Greene’s work. It is hard to pass by them in their perpetual state and not feel as if you’ve seen them everyday.
Herb Greene’s work is now a perfect time capsule, stills from ’60s San Francisco preserved in time. But his work feels far from historical record. Rather, Greene looked up at the world around him, and saw the beauty hidden in every person, place and idea. His work is in the pursuit of happiness, as the gallery puts it. The future may be uncertain, but we can always cherish the now.