From Peter Simon, Photographic Memoir of America's Turbulent 1970s
By HOLLIS L. ENGLEY
Most Americans of a certain age — say, 45 to 60 — will connect
with some part of I and Eye: Pictures of My Generation (Bulfinch Press, $45), the new autobiography in words and pictures by Chilmark photographer Peter Simon.
Most, that is, who are more or less middle
class and were part of the counterculture of the 1960s and '70s. Or lived on, bathed nude on or visited Martha's Vineyard in the past 30 years. Or who are familiar with Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens
and the beautiful Judy Mowatt. Or love the Grateful Dead and the New York Mets. Or smoked pot. Or are a friend of Peter Simon.
It's been an interesting half-century life for this son of privilege. As a
boy, he learned a love of photography from his distant father, book publisher Richard Simon. His father took him into the amber light of the darkroom and showed him the magic of the latent image. At nine,
the young photographer turned his camera on his father and portrayed him as a lonely man wrapped in an overcoat against winter chill, a solitary walker on a snowy street, trees arched menacingly in the fog
above. It's a devastating, prescient image, especially to be made by one so young.
A few years later, his father was dead. And a few years after that, the son took his talent and his father's cameras to
college and did something significant with both.
At Boston University in the mid-1960s, the kid from suburban Riverdale, N.Y., found himself present at the creation of a generation, in one of the most
turbulent times in American history. In Boston, Simon and his lens were in the eye of a hurricane that blew together, in a marijuana haze, anti-Vietnam protests, a rock 'n' roll revolution and the emergence
of open sexuality and drug use.
Boston was a national center (along with New York and San Francisco) of the anti-war and counterculture movement because of the thousands of students in the city's colleges
and universities. The war in Vietnam was both a personal threat to draft-age male students and, on a loftier scale, was regarded by students and many college faculty members as an international crime.
Students took seriously the war and their opposition to it.
"In the fall of 1967, the BU campus became a prime-time host for the counterculture," Simon writes in I and Eye. "We were one of the first
colleges to have a 'radical' newspaper. The BU News, inspired by its brave editor in chief, Raymond Mungo, became a vehicle for political and social change in Boston, if not on the entire East Coast. Ray
organized rallies against Vietnam and ROTC recruiting on campus, pro-pot smoke-ins, and sit-ins to prevent Dow Chemical (makers of weapons of war) representatives from holding recruitment meetings with
students and gave voice to abortion advocate Bill Baird, all with brilliant editorials."
Simon, a teenage photographer with a background of social action from his mother, Andrea, and of visual
storytelling from his father, arrived in Boston at the perfect time. The boredom of the 1950s was long past. Every day brought new drama to the street — protest rallies, draftcard-burnings, love-ins, be-ins,
demonstrations of hundreds of people at Boston churches and tens of thousands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The times were changing, and they were made to order for a photojournalist with a
brand-new social conscience and his generation's black-and-white sense of right and wrong.
What Simon produced with his camera and black-and-white film in the midst of the turmoil — and what he gives us
in most of the images in this book — amounts to a historical document. It's one talented photographer's picture of what was happening on the streets, in the public parks and college dormitories, in the
communes and concert venues of the United States while 60,000 American soldiers were dying in Vietnam.
For that reason alone, I and Eye can take its place on bookshelves next to work by Vietnam war
photographers such as Don McCullin, Dick Durrance and David Kennerly. Not because it took as much physical courage for Simon to photograph draft card burnings and Rolling Stones concerts as it did McCullin
to shoot the Tet Offensive — it clearly didn't — but because this work helps complete a bigger picture.
While Americans and Vietnamese died in Vietnam, their contemporaries in this country were marching
against the war and in favor of civil rights for African Americans, burning draft cards, smoking pot, making love, searching for spirituality and attempting — at Simon's Tree Frog Farm commune in Vermont, at
least — nude rototilling (who would have thought?).
Some photojournalists never find their moment. Sometimes it's a lack of talent, sometimes it's simply a matter of being in the wrong place when the
times are right somewhere else. Peter Simon was lucky enough — and prepared and aware enough — to find his moment at a tender age when he could bring talent and passion together with the revolution swirling
around him. If he later moved permanently to Martha's Vineyard and occupied his camera with family, celebrities and pretty pictures of the Island landscape — well, "the times they have a'changed," he said
recently, with a smile, to this reporter in a Martha's Vineyard Magazine interview that will appear Sept. 1.
That early confluence of talent and opportunity are reflected in hundreds of pictures here — of
protests and communes, spiritual guru Ram Dass and reggae god Bob Marley, Jerry Garcia of the Dead and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, even in his images of that brief '70s flowering of nude summer culture on
Chilmark and Gay Head beaches.
Simon was there, he lived it, and he's brought it back for us in this book.
Hollis L. Engley is editor of Martha's Vineyard Magazine and former deputy managing editor for
features, photography and graphics for Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C.