One of the first spreads in The Family Acid: California, a new collection of old snapshots culled from Roger Steffens’s archive, shows the photographer and his wife, Mary, their profiles double-exposed against the craggy hills of Big Sur, where they lived in an A-frame cabin during the summer of 1978. Shot in golden light, during a golden era of the Golden State, their silhouettes appear as cameos striated by sun-soaked trees and canyon ridges, the people inextricable from the place.
These twinned portraits, like nearly every photograph in these pages, feel both familiar and distant. The double exposure intensifies the double vision of past and present, of longing for a California so thoroughly mythologized that it has become, in some ways, more recognizable than the one in which we live.
I discovered Steffens’s photography through the Instagram account @thefamilyacid, curated by his daughter, Kate. On a digital platform designed to generate instant nostalgia by mimicking the image qualities of film, the real thing nonetheless remains unmistakable, and Steffens’s exuberant, roving record of his family life has a significant following. Social media has become ground zero for market testing, and two previous books of Steffens’s photographs have been released since the account’s inception in 2013.
The Family Acid: California comes via the independent music label Ozma Records. It’s a fittingly unconventional route for this eclectic collection of pictures, most of which have never been seen. Spanning the years from 1968 to 2015, they document trips (and trips) through Humboldt County, Echo Park, and Death Valley and hazy evenings spent backstage with Bob Marley or on the road with war photographer Tim Page, who inspired Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now.
Born in Brooklyn, Steffens landed in California after being shipped off to Vietnam, where he’d been drafted into a psychological operations unit, and the appearances of such figures as Page, Joan Baez, and author and antiwar activist Ron Kovic lend his work historical gravity. But it’s the everyday snapshots in The Family Acid—eccentric, ecstatic, and, yes, psychedelic—that accrete into narrative.
“California provides a nonstop set of visual stimulations,” Steffens writes in the book’s introduction, “ranging from portraits of fellow creators to nature at its most exhilarating.” The photographs here are sequenced tonally rather than chronologically, so that a 1991 portrait of Steffens’s young son by Santa Cruz’s rocky shores precedes a shot of Half Dome reflected in an oily puddle, a visual parallel dating from nearly two decades before. There are glimmers of unrest, of police and protest, but most images capture the moments between moments, and Steffens’s point of view always prioritizes place. Dry grass, muscle cars, and languid bodies arrive like templates of California’s collective memory.
The layout offers the intimacy of a photo album; it is the Family Acid, after all. And yet at times the white space feels wasted or unfinished, as if waiting for captions, while the photographs stacked onto single spreads get short shrift. Some images overlap, a nod to Steffens’s double exposures, which are skillful and hypnotic, as well as the most explicit visual reference to the collection’s name.
“Acid allowed me to immediately experience what the eloquent photography critic Teju Cole calls ‘the thing behind the thing,’ ” writes Steffens. “I have tried to find a pictorial way to illustrate what I was seeing on more than a hundred trips, which led to my interest in multiple exposures.” In one excellent example, a blue butterfly covers his son’s eyes, anointing him with iridescent wings; in another, Steffens’s wife and friend float behind Page’s looming profile backlit by Silver Lake sunlight. Although the latter photo is less remarkable, it achieves a kind of second double vision, a dialogue between past and present. Perhaps the shadowy sensibility here is Steffens’s future audience, looking back at him.
“We had 50,000 followers at last count,” writes Steffens of the Family Acid Instagram feed, “among them children of hippies who want to know what things looked like in those golden days, when we thought the millennium was truly coming to pass and peace and love would reign.” How many times have I sifted through my parents’ warm and grainy 1970s snapshots, mesmerized by how tantalizingly close that other life seemed, if only because of my proximity to those who lived it? How many times has Kate Steffens, who edited The Family Acid: California, done the same?
At its heart, the book is an intergenerational collaboration, an exploration not only of past and present, people and place, but also of the thread between father and daughter, a child’s fascination with what her parent did, saw, and made. “We have to fess up,” Page writes in an essay he contributed to the project, a “flashback” to his days with Steffens. “It was a blast, a piling on of recovery, a renaissance that can never happen again.”
Still, maybe the magic of double exposures is that they offer a glimpse of a liminal plane, an in-between where nothing is lost, neither the reminiscences of one generation nor the projections of the next, a space made all the more Californian by containing us all.
Agatha French is a Los Angeles–based journalist and the author of the chapbook Goodnight Nobody.
• By Roger Steffens
• Edited by Kate Steffens
• Ozma Records, 192 pages, $60
THREE QUESTIONS: ROGER STEFFENS
What does it take for you to find, as Teju Cole says, “the thing behind the thing”? Acid gives a penetrating vision. You see—and feel—the stirrings that underlie everything. The juxtapositions are stunning. The experiments continue through today.
How has California changed? When I look at shots I took of the L.A. skyline in 1975, when my wife, Mary, and I moved here, it looks like Peoria, Illinois. Today, it’s begun to bulk up, though still not what you’d expect in a world-class city.
What do you wish more people understood about California? California is the Great Accepter. It’s a state of outlaws, freethinkers, innovators, corrupters, eccentrics, wild folk. So if you’re thinking of coming here, leave your prejudices behind.