For decades, Steve Schapiro’s iconic photographs have been witty visual documents of American cultural and social movements. He’s captured significant moments like Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march to Selma as well as intimate portraits of Hollywood celebrities such as Marlon Brando in The Godfather and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.
To this day, the American photojournalist and documentarian still gives his audience compelling testimonies of the social and cultural flaws that society has survived, capturing an intriguing side of a multifaceted complexity. And his latest body of work is no different. In Bliss: Transformational Festivals & the Neo Hippie, slated for release in October by powerHouse Books, Schapiro chronicles today’s hippie counterculture movement throughout the U.S. and in parts of Europe.
A long-term project he composed from 2012 to 2014, Bliss comes from the desire to investigate, understand and capture the joyful and peaceful sentiment that characterizes contemporary hippie communities, zooming in on the “bliss ninnies,” a not-so-well-known group of insuppressibly optimistic people whose outlook extends to most if not all aspects of their lives. Their goal of an earthly spirituality is mostly achieved through open-eye meditation and ecstatic dancing. Bliss is a book “about people feeling and expressing joy,” Schapiro says. “That’s how we saw it, and that’s what we were trying to express. What came out was just that joyous feeling,” he says. “People come back every year just for that reason.”
While touring hippie communities throughout the United States, Schapiro was accompanied by his son, Theophilus Donoghue, an active participant of such movements since the age of 23. “My son is very spiritual. He sort of guided me through it. He took a few pictures too, but basically it was his idea, and we had a great time doing it together,” Schapiro says.
The father-son team traveled the U.S. for two consecutive summers, visiting the Mystic Garden in Oregon, the Rainbow Gathering and the Mount Shasta festival in California, as well as Burning Man in Nevada and Electric Forest in Michigan. “While we were in the West, we thought for a while that this whole spirit was something to confine to the West Coast. And then we went into Minnesota [and] we went to a place called ‘Shangri-La’, and we found it was as intense and as much of a thing as it had been in the West,” Schapiro says.
What impressed him most was the spiritual commitment of such communities. “The best expression I got was someone who told me, I’m not a Catholic, I’m not Baptist, I’m a Festivaltarian,” Schapiro says, “and that really expressed it – it became almost like a religious experience for people in a way.”
Schapiro wasn’t new to capturing carefree moments in the counterculture movement. In 1967, he chronicled the Hippie in The Haight, and a few of those black-and-white photographs appear in Bliss as well. Some elements of the ’60s movement have remained unchanged, but the two periods diverge in some important ways. “I photographed Haight-Ashbury for LIFE Magazine in 1967, and it was a totally different spirit,” Schapiro says. “At that time, very many people were into heavy drugs and all. And what’s different now is the values have changed very much, and the hippies today are much more into meditation and into organic food and into sort of ecstatic dancing in a way.”
During the project, the photographer felt at ease with the bliss ninnies, and the members reciprocated the feeling. He and his son spent several days a year in close contact with the communities, often camping with them or sleeping in their own cars. Moreover, Schapiro, possibly encouraged by his son’s closeness with the community, immersed himself in the peaceful atmosphere – as well as in the clear waters of a stream as shown by one photograph in the book – experiencing a very strong and liberating feeling of communion with nature and humanity in general. “It was very lively and very emotional,” Schapiro says.
Steve Schapiro is a Chicago-based photographer whose work is included in the collections of the Smithsonian, The High Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. His latest book, Bliss: Transformational Festivals & the Neo Hippie, will be published on October 6th by powerHouse Books. It is also available here.
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