Richie Silverman. Los Angeles, styczeń 1979 roku

a treasure trove of unreal psychedelic images from a counterculture icon

While stationed in Vietnam in the US army's psychological operations unit, Roger Steffens' commanding officer ordered him to photograph everything he saw. When he returned, he continued to voraciously document his daily life in the Californian...

by Emily Manning
07 July 2016, 3:20pm

Richie Silverman. Los Angeles, styczeń 1979 roku

Roger Steffens has been called "The Forrest Gump of LSD," and in a lot of ways, it's true. Their main difference is ignorance: the film's slow-witted protagonist is largely unaware he's witnessing the 20th century's most defining events. But Steffens proverbially savored his box of psychedelic-laced chocolates, and realized the richness of his life as he was living it. He's considered one of the world's foremost experts on Bob Marley and the Wailers. He chaired the Grammy Reggae Committee for the majority of its 30-year history. He hosted shows on NPR's massively influential Santa Monica outpost, KCRW, for a decade. He's interviewed Keith Richards, Nina Simone, Little Richard, Sinead O'Connor, and Ray Charles. I'm not sure how good he is at running.

Dad's yellow Cadillac, near Yosemite, CA. October 1988

Steffens' resume weaves together line after unbelievable line of a life lived fully: curator, host, editor, encyclopedist, discographer, biography researcher, promotions director, opening act, writer (of, among countless other things, Bob Marley trading cards). Throughout it all, he was also an amateur photographer. And today, the 74-year-old celebrates the opening of his first-ever gallery exhibition, The Family Acid, at New York's Benrubi Gallery.

Sunbathing with poet Mark McCloskey, Berkeley, CA. August 1972

Though Steffens kept a Kodak Brownie camera close while touring his one man poetry show, he didn't seriously start shooting until 1968, when he was drafted for the army's psychological operations unit in the Vietnam War at 25-years-old. After organizing a refugee campaign to benefit families he found living in Saigon's sewers, Steffens' colonel gave him his own division within the unit — civic action projects. The only condition: he must photograph everything he saw and did.

La Jolla, CA. December 1980

"I had free film and developing for two years, plus I got to keep the pictures," Steffens tells me on the phone from his Los Angeles home — six rooms of which house his unparalleled collection of reggae records and memorabilia — looking on the brightest possible side of his 26-month service. "I've always had a pretty good eye because I've spent so much time in museums in New York as a kid, my mother was very much into art. But I've had no formal training at all, and no patience to work in a dark room," Steffens explains. "It was all instinctive."

My dad lived in Morocco in the early Seventies. This was taken at a campground in Marrakech, 1971

He shot over 20,000 frames during the war, capturing Saigon's bustling streets, young Taoist monks in training, and his fellow servicemen at their most earnest. "I was right smack dab in the middle of the capital city and there was so much going on day and night, it was a feast for the eyes — a very trippy environment that was totally unlike anything I'd ever experienced in my life," Steffens says. "The smells, the sounds, the clenching heat. Everything about it opened all my senses. My eye was caught by a lot of fascinating things, and Vietnam was the start of it all."

Tet Offensive, Saigon. Overhead a helicopter gunship fires 5,000 bullets a minute. Every fifth bullet is a red tracer that helps direct fire to its target. Vietnam, February 1968

When he returned from service, Steffens continued to photograph his own daily life with the same compulsive ardor. Yet rather than documenting Vietnam at one of its most turbulent periods, he was now capturing America at one of its most transformative: the counterculture. "Most of my friends were in the arts; they were poets, they were actors, they were writers, painters, photographers — bohemians of various sorts. When I finally got the show on KCRW in 79, I could open the airwaves up to anyone who'd make an interesting guest." He photographed hippie fairs in Mendocino (where in 1975, he met his wife, Mary, while they were both tripping acid), billboards on the gritty Sunset Strip, endless blue skies in Big Sur. After mistaking a roll his legendary anti-war activist friend Ron Kovic shot for fresh film, he began making breathtaking double exposures in order to represent his experience of the world on psychedelics. "I was trying to get a sense of the triple vision you have on acid when you see the thing behind the thing. Because that's what acid was doing; it was letting you pull back the veil and see the structure of the deep things — see the very air you were breathing," Steffens explains.

Philip Michael Kolman. Big Sur, CA. June 1978

Despite his extensive travels, fascinating tribe of friends and collaborators, and unique eye, Steffens' snapshots were largely a personal project — a trippy, Technicolor family album. In the mid 90s, his daughter Kate began to catalog her father's Kodachrome slides; in 2012, Steffens employed his son Devon to scan all 40,000 of them. When Kate set up an Instagram account to share them, she chose a name that's become the Steffens' collective artmaking moniker: The Family Acid. After netting 35,000 followers, the account inspired the publication of a photo book, some of which will be in the Benrubi Gallery show.

Ahead of tonight's opening, we caught up with Steffens to learn more about his long, strange trip.

Northern California, March 1974

How had things changed — or were things changing — when you got back to the States after the War?
I got back a few months before the Cambodian invasion and the Kent and Jackson State murders. That was the year the protest movement really pulled in its horns and lost its forward momentum — once they started killing students. I had been booked to read poetry and lecture about Vietnam months in advance in early 1970, and by the beginning of May, I was no longer the convocation speaker, I was the strike committee speaker because almost every school in America went on strike. It was a whole different way of approaching my Vietnam lectures because I was a Goldwater conservative when I went to Vietnam! A lot of people who never would have listened to an anti war speaker, who knew me as that conservative kid before the war, came to hear my lecture and learned what I went through in Vietnam. All I did was tell people about my experience personally, and how it had come to change me so radically.

Cynthia Copple at Stonehenge, October 1971

How would you describe the sounds and styles that incubated within the counterculture? What were people wearing, what were they listening to — how did they express themselves?
It was a time in the early 70s that just adored color, brightness, flamboyance. The clothes were, by our standards today very loud; the hair was very long, even the anchormen on television had long, bushy sideburns. We all wore scarves and neckerchiefs and beads. It was a freak show, but in the very best sense. And people loved music. Before Altamont, the rock festivals were joyous love-ins. We really thought, in the 70s and particularly in the summer of 66, the millennium had arrived. The world was really going to change forever; it was going to be filled with love and sharing and creativity and communal living. I mean we honestly believed that shit.

'The Family Acid' is on view at Benrubi Gallery from July 7 - August 26, 2016. 


Dad double exposed by Mom. Palo Colorado Canyon, Big Sur, CA. August 1978

There are many things I enjoy about your photographs, but one is their sense of humor. There are kids playing with giant pot plants, funny sayings on cars. Do you see any persistent themes running through your images?
If I had to choose one word to describe my pictures, it would be joy. When I look back at the great photobooks of the 70s especially, they're all so dark — people shooting up in the alleys in Harlem, poor people in the South living homeless, fighting in the ghetto, all of the hard, hard things that we went through. At the same time, there were so many moments of great communal joy. People have looked at a lot of my pictures and said, 'Everyone's smiling in these,' as if it were something wrong.

Big Sur Sunset, August 1978

Winters, CA. March 1981


Text Emily Manning
Photography Roger Steffens

Roger Steffens
The Family Acid
Benrubi Gallery