The Summer of Love, 50 Years Later

Elaine Mayes’s photographs capture the authenticity of Haight-Ashbury in 1967.

By Melinda Sacks

When Elaine Mayes decided to move to a commune in Haight-Ashbury 50 years ago, it was “a time when, as a young person, it felt like you could do anything you wanted,” she says. The documentary photographer shot her photo series “The Summer of Love” beginning in 1967, when seekers and wanderers flocked to the notorious San Francisco neighborhood to “be in,” drop out, and live a counterculture life with a rock-and-roll soundtrack.

“Look into the faces of Elaine’s subjects and you will see the hopes and dreams of the 1960s as though it were yesterday,” says Julian Cox, chief curator at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, where Mayes’s photos are on display until August 20. The multimedia exhibition is a true blast from the past, with strobe lights, psychedelic posters, and piped-in music by Cream and the Doors accompanying displays of the braided bell-bottoms and Indian-bedspread dresses that were the go-to attire of hippies and flower children.

An art and art history major at Stanford, Mayes, ’58, worked as a photojournalist in San Francisco between 1961 and 1968. At first, she took pictures of rock bands, including Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company — featuring a young Janis Joplin — “before they were famous,” she notes. On assignment for Hullabaloo magazine, she captured the Monterey Pop Festival, the May 1967 concert that helped launch the Summer of Love, served as the template for Woodstock, and introduced a U.S. audience to the Who and Jimi Hendrix. But the sweep of her photography quickly expanded.

“I didn’t like the way the press was creating and promoting the Haight-Ashbury, and I wanted to show the truth,” she says. “All I could think of was to show the people. I wandered around and asked if I could take their photos. I didn’t care if they were famous.”

Fifty of those photos make up Mayes’s series “The Summer of Love,” and many of them are on exhibit at museums throughout California this summer, the 50th anniversary of the Haight in its glory. The unflinching portraits document some of the 100,000 young people who traveled to San Francisco to be a part of the phenomenon. Although jam-packed double-decker buses cruised the Haight, showing tourists the neighborhood’s colorful people and places, Mayes emphasizes that it wasn’t all sunshine. The Haight was full of 20-year-old runaways with no income source but apparently endless supplies of drugs. “These were kids who were in huge transition,” she says.

“Her photos are wonderfully authentic,” says Cox, who has known Mayes and her work for years. “They have an unmistakable intimacy and directness that sets them apart from other photographs of the era.”

After the Summer of Love, Mayes moved away from the Bay Area to teach photography for the next 35 years, beginning at the University of Minnesota in 1968, then at Hampshire College, Bard College and finally New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she chaired the photography department before retiring from teaching in 2001. Today, the professor emerita lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York, continuing her photography. 
“I was very fortunate to be young and alive in the ’60s,” she writes in her book It Happened in Monterey, about the Monterey Pop Festival, “when circumstances and the status quo were challenged, and when — briefly — it seemed possible to transform our value system into something more positive, more spiritual and more generous.’’ •

Mayes herself in the late ’60s. (Photo: Suki Hill/1967)

Where to see Elaine Mayes’s Summer of Love photos

Exhibitions connected with the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival are on view this summer at:

The de Young Museum, San Francisco

The California Historical Society, San Francisco

The Monterey Art Museum, Monterey, Calif.

The Grammy Museum, Los Angeles

The Joseph Bellows Gallery, La Jolla, Calif.