Photographing 'The Sixties' It's been more than 40 years since the "counter culture" came of age in America. Photographer Robert Altman did as much as anyone could to preserve it by capturing the hippies on camera. His pictures are all compiled in a new book titled The Sixties.
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Photographing 'The Sixties'

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Photographing 'The Sixties'

Photographing 'The Sixties'

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

It's been more than 40 years since the counterculture came of age in America. Long hair, psychedelic drugs, experimental rock music, and the ubiquitous peace sign were part of the landscape.

Robert Altman did as much as anyone could to preserve it by capturing people on camera. His pictures are all compiled in a new book called, "The Sixties." And Robert Altman, the photographer - not the filmmaker - is with us now.

How are you doing?

Mr. ROBERT ALTMAN (Professional Photographer): Fine. And thank you for having me, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So you give a little preface saying that most of your pictures were actually taken in the early '70s. So what makes a decade a decade then?

Mr. ALTMAN: Well, I think it's an idea that occurs in people's minds of what the '60s was. And we think of the '60s - most of us - as a period of time between 1966 and 1974. It's as if our parents said to us in 1966, you can dropout now, but just be back by 1974.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: So when you think about your role in this - you were one of the first photographers for Rolling Stone magazine and - yeah, the rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres wrote in the introduction to your book…

Mr. ALTMAN: Correct.

CHIDEYA: …that your work really captured the '60s. When you were taking these pictures, when you were thinking of this - were you thinking about, okay, I've got to just get stuff in the magazine or were you thinking this is history. I've got to preserve this?

Mr. ALTMAN: My raison d'etre was to capture the magic of the '60s on film - on still photograph. So I was young, I was of the age of most of the people that were experiencing the '60s. And the second purpose, of course, was to get these photographs in magazines and to share the experience with other people.

CHIDEYA: Now, you graduated from college with degrees in psychology and anthropology, then you turned to taking the pictures. It seems to me that documenting human behavior and culture in a moment like the '60s might draw in what you had learned in your classes. Was it helpful?

Mr. ALTMAN: Absolutely. It was helpful. Being a photographer is not just being a technician. It's being a film director. It's being a historian, and it's - being a public relations person and a psychologist. And so, you are very aware of other human beings around you and you want to fit in and capture and allow people to let you capture what they are about.

CHIDEYA: Now, let's go through some of the pictures that you have in the book. You have pictures of people meditating. You have a whole bunch of famous people. There's one picture with Kathleen Cleever, one of the more famous members of the Black Panther Party…

Mr. ALTMAN: Right.

CHIDEYA: …that was taken at a rally in 1969. Bobby Seale is standing next to her, and he is looking right at you and very suspiciously. What do you remember about taking that photo?

Mr. ALTMAN: Well, at that time, when he was looking at me, he was probably thinking - now, is this really a photojournalist or is this someone from the FBI trying to infiltrate in making believe that he is a photojournalist with long hair? It's interesting what comes out later in the darkroom. Because at that time, you're just caught up in a moment and then the photograph tells the story.

CHIDEYA: You also have a picture of three men meditating in a semi-circle. And one of the men is black, another looks like he might be Hispanic. There was a moment when some people felt that races were drawing together. Do you find, you know, you have a whole bunch of different kinds of pictures - performers, magic bus, people who were just everyday people - was it a time when people came together across racial lines for real?

Mr. ALTMAN: I absolutely feel that there was a coming together of the races to a degree. I think one thing we all had in common was a feeling of disenfranchisement from the establishment. And we supported each other at times. Not all the time, but certainly, there was crossover.

CHIDEYA: You have another picture of Tina Turner looking just fit, sexy, strong. What's the story behind that photo?

Mr. ALTMAN: Well, we were at a festival. She was, actually, with the late Ike Turner then and the (unintelligible) we were at a festival called Gold Rush Festival. And that became a Rolling Stone cover and it also became a front cover for a book Rolling Stone published called "The Book of Covers," which covered 30 years of Rolling Stone (audio gap) made it.

CHIDEYA: Now, you have some moments that just passed by, photos that didn't happen. Give me an example of one or two people that you wished you'd shot but you never did.

Mr. ALTMAN: Well, I was the greatest Bob Dylan fan. I had actually started to go to his concerts before he even recorded. And I hadn't seen any other musician more than Bob Dylan. And then for some reason, I just never got to photograph him. So, he, and I guess, Jimi Hendrix were the two that got away from me.

CHIDEYA: Now, this is a, you know, kind of a random question - not quite random. Robert Altman was a huge, huge filmmaker. He has passed on. Did people ever say what's Robert Altman, the filmmaker, doing taking photos?

Mr. ALTMAN: It was embarrassing. At times, I had drinks bought for me once in a while. I tried to - I didn't wanted to tell people I wasn't that guy, but I did. And I make it very clear on my Web site. We actually got to meet - he and I - about two and half years ago at Elaine's Restaurant in New York. And I was so delighted that he knew who I was and sat me down, and then asked me if he could keep a coy of my card, and he was such a gentleman. And I am such a great fan of him and I missed him already.

CHIDEYA: Now, you started taking these pictures when you were just out of college. If you were just leaving college today, who would you be shooting? Where would you be shooting?

Mr. ALTMAN: Well, I'd probably out there in the clubs, at concerts and stadiums. I might be back out in the streets photographing what's left of anti-war demonstrations - they are not quite the same. But I'm sure my nose for news would lead me further and my curiosity would take me along. I did back out. No question.

CHIDEYA: Well, Robert, thanks for joining us.

Mr. ALTMAN: Thank you so much, Farai, for having me. It's been a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Likewise. And that was photographer Robert Altman. His latest book of pictures is called "The Sixties." You can see some of the photos mentioned here. Just go to our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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Tomorrow, how families prepare to send their loved ones off to war.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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