Nacio Jan Brown: Eloquent Witness To The West Coast 60s Scene

For a period of years, beginning in the mid-1960s, Nacio Brown photographed virtually all of the major anti-war and social protest movement activities in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographs were published widely in the underground press at the time. Since then they have appeared in many books, magazines, and newspapers worldwide, including art historian Peter Selz’s recent book, The Art of Engagement, where a number of his photographs appear. His work has been exhibited in leading museums and galleries worldwide, including the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco, The Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, Focus Gallery in San Francisco, the Ansel Adams Friends of Photography Gallery in San Francisco, the University Art Museum in Berkeley, and most recently, at the Berkeley Art Center as part of their traveling exhibit ‘The Whole World’s Watching.”

In 1969 Brown undertook a four-years-on-one-block street photography project that resulted in the publication of a brilliant and compelling book, Rag Theater. The American Institute of Graphic Arts selected this volume for its 1976 “Fifty Books” exhibition. Nacio Jan Brown’s photographs are also in the collections of The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum in New York, The International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, and the Library of Congress as well as in many private collections.

Brown’s latest effort is a much-expanded version of Rag Theater, the seminal book first published in 1975. It documents with consummate empathy and insight, the vibrant, desperate, and rebellious street life on one block in Berkeley from 1969 to 1973. The website uses a blog format so that people who were there can share their recollections of the times. People have begun to do that and many of the posts are quite moving. Here in his own direct and unflinching words is the first part of Nacio Brown’s amazing photojournalistic project.

Q: Evidently you have been shooting professionally for quite a while, is that right?

A: Yes, but mostly in the past. I started shooting professionally in the underground press back in the mid ‘60s. I don’t know how professional you’d call that. I got paid $40 a week some weeks.

Q: In examining your street portfolio we’re very impressed. It’s clearly a very fine example of classic photojournalism in the Leica tradition. We commend you for it, it’s really great stuff. What motivated you to cover this? You were living in San Francisco and you just came upon it?

A: Thank you. No, I was living in Berkley. Starting in 1966, I had been photographing all the riots and demonstrations and anti-war stuff for the underground press as I mentioned. And I did most of my work for a small paper, the San Francisco Express Times. I was shooting at that point with a Pentax. I was waiting for an event that I could photograph from beginning to end, and in color so I could submit to the Black Star photo agency. So when the People’s Park business first started, right off the bat I knew this was going to be a big deal and that was going to be the one I shot in color. And so I did. I had AP credentials as a stringer, and I had three cameras, two of which were loaded with color film, which was of course useless to AP. And one of them was loaded with black and white film I tried to give the AP guy.

Anyway there was a particularly violent day at the People’s Park event. Among the pictures I shot that day there’s one of a guy that has been shot by police on a roof. He died subsequently. Some of the police that were told to load with birdshot evidently decided to use buckshot instead. This guy got shot and there is a picture of him bleeding to death on the roof. There’s also a picture of an aerial tear gas bombing of the campus. On my Facebook page there’s an album, which is public, called “Dissent” that includes a couple of my shots from the People’s Park thing.

I sent all that stuff off to Black Star and they sold three and half pages of my work to Paris Match, which gave me enough money to buy a real photojournalist camera. I think I bought two black M4 bodies and three or four lenses, but my Leica outfit grew. I eventually wound up with five or six lenses I guess—21mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, 35mm and with a Visoflex, a 400mm tele—the one you push/pull; it’s like a couple of feet long. So that’s the story of how I got my Leicas. And in terms of documenting this block in Berkeley, I did that after People’s Park, which was pretty much over by June of ’69. I had been spending a lot of time on Telegraph Avenue and more particularly on what we called “The Med” or “The Mediterranean Café,” which was kind of a center for all the lefties in town. And there was a really interesting scene on the block and I just decided that the underground press scene had kind of peaked and was a bit on the wane, although I kept doing that for a few years. But I just decided to do a book to document the block. And so I took a few pictures in the summer and maybe in the fall of 1969. I went to Europe in January and February at the beginning of 1970. And then I came back and shot with my Leicas until 1973, documenting the block. The group of pictures I’ve sent to you were all shot with Leicas, and after I came back from Europe at least 95% of my work was done with Leicas.

There was a book called The Concerned Photographer, edited by Cornell Capa that featured the work of about half a dozen photographers that embodies the classic sort of Leica style photojournalism that was a huge influence on me. I was particularly impressed by the work of Werner Bischof because his pictures were classically composed. I had gone to art school in 1960, and I think the one thing I took away from it was this idea. I thought I was going to be a painter, but I was a terrible painter. And in fact the reason I bought a camera was to take pictures of my paintings. My initial camera was a little Kodak Pocket instamatic about the size of a harmonica and the pictures of my mural-sized paintings were no good. Then I got a little boxy Instamatic and that wasn’t any good either. Then I bought a Mamiya Sekor and as soon as I had it in my hands it was all over with painting. Basically that’s how I got into photography.

Q: That’s fascinating. You mentioned Werner Bischof who was not only a fine photographer in terms of visual insight, dynamic composition, and telling a story, he was also a master technician. The technical quality of his work is one of the notable aspects of it. We notice that the technical quality of your work, at least in this portfolio, is really outstanding. Tonal gradation, detail, and sharpness—all the defining qualities of a photographic image are exploited here. Would you agree?

A: I do, thank you, and let me give you a little history on that. I learned photography in the ASUC studios, The Associated Students of California studios at Berkley. I loved living in Berkley, and the ASUC “house style” was based on shooting two and a quarter (medium format) Kodak Panatomic-X roll film developed in Kodak Microdol and taking pictures of the sort that you would see by Wynn Bullock and Minor White—you know, rocks and trees, and half-second exposures of a stream. I tried to do that and I just wasn’t interested because there was all this political activity going on in Sproul Plaza, which was where all the exciting stuff was happening. And after attempting and failing to become interested in rocks and trees, I was shooting 35mm. But I still had this obsession with quality which I acquired in the darkroom, and the idea was that my 35mm negatives and print quality were going to be just as good as what these guys were doing with two and a quarter Panatomic-X fine grain film. Of course, side-by- side the medium format Panatomic-X stuff always had the edge. But right from the beginning I was striving for really fine quality work. Another little thing that happened which is amusing (I didn’t know it for years!) was that Bruce Davidson came out with a book called “East 100th Street” in Harlem. I thought, “I really like that work and I want my quality to be just as good.” I just assumed he was shooting with a 35 so I thought my stuff should have the same tonal gradation. It was only years later I learned that all his stuff was shot on 4 x 5. In the end, that’s probably a fortunate error to have made. To have this role model out there with these samples of work that were in real life unattainable but something to strive for. So right from the beginning I was concerned with quality.

Q: Now these pictures were shot with an M4 you said?

A: Yeah, I had three M4s at one point early on and that whole range of lenses that I mentioned.

Q: Which lenses did you use the most frequently on this stuff?

A: Probably the 35mm and the 50mm although there is a fair amount of work, probably a disproportionate amount of work done with a 28mm. And one of the ways to use the 28mm, which I developed early on, might be considered unusual. Do you see the picture called “Boy in cape with girl” and then there is one that’s a picture of a woman in a coat sitting with a puppy between her feet?

Q: Yes, please tell us about the method you used to create this images and why you think they’re special.

A: One of the ways I would shoot—let’s say a classic example would be the one with the woman in the coat, which might have been shot with a 21mm, and especially the “Boy in cape.” I would hold the camera vertically and I would bend over so that the height of the camera was right in the middle of what I wanted to shoot. That way I could keep the camera back perpendicular to the ground and avoid converging verticals. The “Boy in cape with girl” is almost perfectly rectilinear.

Q: Yeah, that’s pretty good — can you elaborate?

A: Yes, it would keep things rectilinear, and yet it would also communicate a definite point of view. So if you look at this carefully, you can tell I’m looking up at their faces, and (although it’s less obvious) down at their knees. And the woman sitting there with the puppy between her feet was the same thing. There is an interesting effect that you get when you shoot this way, and, if you keep the camera back perpendicular to the ground, there is less extraneous information with the photograph even though you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens. So I would say the main lenses were probably 50mm and 35mm with a fair amount of stuff done with a 28mm. There is one picture that I took, “Boy with head in hands” that was taken when I had a 135mm telephoto that I had borrowed from that camera store. They said, “Just try it out. See if you like it.” So I was just playing around with that 135mm when I shot that one.

Q: Is there anything else you learned in terms of technique while you were creating this iconic portfolio?

A: Yes, when it was published as a book I was forced to become a master printer almost unintentionally! Initially there were 300 hard bounds editions that were numbered and signed, and each one was to come with an original print. I had to make all these prints myself, and when I started to do that I discovered that I didn’t know how to make a print to my satisfaction. That’s because I was striving to make prints of a quality beyond anything I had done before. I spent some time in a painful process that I won’t elaborate on here learning how to make really high quality prints. And if I do say so the prints that I made for this book (also Steven Kasher Gallery has some) are really good. I got there with the prints I am pleased to say.

Q: You’ve got bikers, these two guys, one on a Harley Davidson the other on a Honda 750. Anyway we noticed there is a characteristic of many of these images; that the subject or subjects are looking directly at the camera. Can you comment on that? What does that mean to you?

A: I don’t really know the answer to that. I know that instinctively I would snap the shutter at a certain moment. You’re right; there is eye contact in a tremendous number of these. That’s when I would snap the shutter — at the moment at eye contact. That’s one when digital first came out I thought to myself, “Who could use these things? You push the shutter and you don’t get a picture for a quarter of a second!” These days that’s not true anymore but that was just instinct. That’s just what I did. And of course I think it works.

Q: It’s very effective and interesting. It doesn’t sound like a sophisticated technique but actually it is, because the end result is very compelling. It draws the viewer in—don’t you think so?

A: Yes. I was a little nervous with these bikers because they looked kind of intimidating.  But when I asked them if I could take their picture, they were so nice. These guys were so into being photographed.

Q: Of course — you’re showing them with their bikes; so they say yes, please shoot a picture of me with my bike. We see what you mean about intimidating. But when you take a close look at this picture, what makes the picture live is the detail, the precision of detail in the bikes and their faces. What these pictures bear witness to is the ability of photographs. Just by composing a picture and determining when you push the shutter — just with those two simple variables you can convey a sense of the era, a sense of the spirit of the times. You couldn’t shoot these pictures today. These pictures are of their time. And it’s amazing that photography can do that. And of course it has something to do with your ability as a photographer, but it’s also the nature of the medium. Do you have any thoughts on this?

A: Well there’s another significant aspect about these images, and that’s the trust of the subjects. A lot of people have asked me how I got such intimate images. I can’t remember the exact words people use when they ask, but the thing is I was already on that block when these people came. I didn’t come into their space as an outsider. When you come in from the outside I think it’s harder to establish any kind of rapport. But I was not somebody that was arriving on a scene that was somebody else’s scene. These kids that started showing up on the block, they were arriving on my scene.

Q: I see what you mean. You were indigenous, is that right?

A: Exactly. At a certain point when I had enough images, I used to carry a binder around to show people I was doing a book. Proof is in the binder. It had a three inch spine so it held lots of images. It would let people know just what was going on.

Q: You shot these with a Leica M4 and you thought you should buy a photojournalist’s camera when you got some money, and you were finally able to get the equipment that you wanted. Aside from the fact that there is a great history of photojournalists shooting with Leicas and obviously you were aware of that, what else is there about Leica cameras and Leica lenses that lend itself especially well to this kind of photography?

A: I don’t know what to say about that besides repeating what everybody says. However, once you get this thing in your hand — it’s just the size of it and the lack of the prism. The way it focuses with the rangefinder focusing. I’m just going to repeat what everyone else say, it just becomes an extension of you. It’s such a pronounced phenomenon that it’s already been more that adequately described. I don’t think I have anything new to add there.

Q: It is ergonomic and it feels right, and it’s such a lovely object that you want to shoot images that enable it and are up to its standard. But it really does feel like it’s a part of you.

To get back to the pictures, some or all of these images reveal a certain era or a certain place. There is a sense of era and there is a sense of a lifestyle of the subjects. Are there any of these images that you sent us that particularly moved you? Or do you have a fascinating story behind any of them. Many of these pictures are really very compelling, such as “Boy holding dog.”

We also like the girl rolling a joint. Again, it’s timeless. The fact that there is this other head right next to her, its specificity and focus on the one hand and the other hand its randomness of the scene that kind of tension is really amazing.

A: There is a story here. Let me tell you when I started taking pictures there was this girl with nose ring and frizzy hair. There is the image of three girls; by the way they were 13 years old at the time maybe 14. There was an absolutely horrendous mortality rate among these kids. This scene was interesting, but it was toxic. They were having sex and smoking dope from the time they were 12 years old and so on. I don’t want to say that specifically about these girls, but just in general. But the two girls on the outside of that picture made it to 22 years old. Some of the other kids didn’t make it that far, a really horrendous rate of dead kids. There is an exhibit right now of my work at the Graduate School of Journalism at Cal. I gave a presentation.

I set up the Rag Theater website as a blog so people could reminisce. And all these years I’ve thought, “God what a toxic scene, just death for these kids.” But when I put the website up, I was contacted and people did post stuff. And for the people that are still around that were there, this was the time of their life. Their view of it was just this wonderful great period in their life. And I realize my take on it was one-sided and that the reality was more complex.

But to get back to the pictures–the girl with the nose ring, a straight on shot, classically composed. The black guy holding his daughter, a straight on shot, classically composed. The boy in the cape with the girl was also shot straight on. That was pretty much it, but there is another one with a boy with the back of his finger touching his cheek and he’s in a Halloween costume with a cape. That was the shot that I had when I started. It was the classic straight on portrait. And I really knew how to do it, but I didn’t know how to do much else when I started. I realized when I started accumulating these things that I was going to have to have some variation. As I shot this project, I remember quite self-consciously introducing diagonals. Instead of shooting straight across the sidewalk, shooting up at an angle and shooting down like the “three-card Monte” shot. Or the shot that’s called “outside the Med”. And then doing things like having a shot like the one sidewalk group of cars where it’s from the back of most of the people. Or the girl leaning on the guitar case where there’s a figure on the right where his back is half of the picture and then the one you mentioned which is “girl rolling joint”. These pictures are complicated. When I started out like with “boy on chopped bike” that was the only shot that I had. Straight on, balanced, symmetrical composition. Then I got into being able to do, I would never have been able to do this before, there’s this “outside the med” shot with people leaning against a car with some dogs sniffing each other and stuff going on in the background. When I started shooting I would never have seen that shot. I learned to do that during the course of this project.

Thank you for your time, Nacio!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of Nacio’s work, visit the Rag Theater website here and his Facebook page. 

Corrections on 11/25/2012 – “Boy holding dog” was not the cover of the paperback edition.