the naked, ecstatic world of america's neo-hippies

Ever wondered what happened to all the hippies? Photographer Steve Schapiro answers that question in his new book.

by Zio Baritaux
13 January 2016, 2:55pm

In photographer Steve Schapiro's new book, Bliss, nude and longhaired hippies meditate and dance. In one captivating photo, a naked redhead, his body caked in dried mud, ecstatically smiles at the sky as he grooves. In another, a group of revelers sits in a prayer circle, crossing their arms in order to form heart hand-signs with the people sitting next to them. These kinds of gatherings and goings-on are expected in photos from the 1960s, but what makes these images particularly compelling is that they were taken in 2014. "Many people think that hippies were a phenomena of the 1960s and early 1970s," writes Schapiro's son, Theophilus Donoghue, in the book's introduction. "The movement never ended—it simply vacated the cities in order to live in eco-villages and congregate for annual festivals."

For Bliss, Schapiro and his son traveled to several festivals across the country—including Mystic Garden, Rainbow Gathering and Electric Forest—at which Schapiro captured intimate portraits of neo-hippies participating in ecstatic dance, visionary art, sound healing, meditation and yoga. But this wasn't the first time he photographed this subculture: On his first assignment for Life magazine in 1967, Schapiro documented hippies in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district (though, as he explains below, some things have changed). Schapiro later went on to shoot historic moments such as the Selma to Montgomery marches with Martin Luther King, Jr.; celebrities such as Steve McQueen, Sophia Loren, Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson and David Bowie; and the film posters for Taxi Driver and The Godfather: Part III. However, the 82-year-old photographer is still in search for that perfect shot. "I still have not taken my best photograph," Schapiro says in the following interview. "I don't know yet what it will be."

How were you introduced to the new hippie movement and why did you decide to photograph it?
In 2001, on the Fourth of July, I went with my son Theophilus to a Rainbow Gathering in Michigan, which had great group vibes. They have an expression at Rainbow Gatherings saying, "All you need is a bowl, a spoon and a belly button." If you could play a drum, it's even better. Then, in 2008 for Father's Day, Theophilus surprised me again with a ticket for Burning Man, which was for me an amazing artistic experience. I had my camera with me and I believe the seed was planted there.

Having experienced the original hippie movement, were you surprised or concerned when your son decided to become a neo-hippie?
Theophilus has always had great spiritual values and loves to dance. He continually inspires those around him and teaches me, as well, to be a more spiritual person. Neo-hippies have a different outlook on life in their attitude to themselves and others than what I had seen at the Haight.

Can you elaborate on that? How do contemporary hippies differ from their 1960s predecessors?
In 1967, I photographed Haight-Ashbury for an essay on "Hippies and Indians" for Life magazine. San Francisco was pretty much Psychedelic City. Drugs and quick romance seemed to be on everyone's minds. The bands at the Fillmore West (Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, and Janis) were iconic and all that great music has remained. But unlike the hippies of the past, the current generation is more inclined towards meditation, prayer and ecstatic dancing as a means of entering altered states as opposed to the use of psychedelics. There is also a major focus on taking care of the body through a raw food or vegan diet.

What happens at these festivals? Can you describe a day-in-the-life of a hippie at the Mystic Garden or Electric Forest, for example?
During the summer, music festivals spring up everywhere, not only in Oregon and Northern California, where you would expect them, but throughout the U.S. and Europe. The festivals themselves become like family reunions to which hippies return year after year to meet old friends, living for the week in cars and tents. In the true family festivals like Mystic Garden, there is no alcohol. Families arrive with their children, living for the week in their tents. Music by various bands starts in mid-morning and lasts way through the night. Usually, there are some well-known festival favorite performers like Nahko and Medicine for the People. Concession booths sell all kinds of food, from raw food to Thai food. There are many activities such as yoga and open-eye meditation. But most important, is the extremely spirited dancing. While at the Haight, it was the performers who were most important for everyone to watch, but at the transformational festivals, it is much more the spirit of everyone dancing that creates the group vibe.

Did you participate in any activities at the festivals?
I made many friends, talked a great deal, danced some and took many pictures. Everyone liked to be photographed. If you look at the next-to-the-last page of the Bliss book, you will see a photo in the spirit of things that will make you laugh.

What do you want people to think about or understand when looking at your photos?
Hopefully, a sense of the value of life.


Text Zio Baritaux
All photography © Steve Schapiro from the book

Steve Schapiro
photography interviews