We have yet to reconcile the deep chasm of exchange in the American order during the fateful summer and winter of 1969. During the rightfully dubbed Summer of Hate, the Manson Family murders shook the very bedrock of the American free lovin’ psyche. The significance of the murders ended the free wheelin’ summer of love from 1968 and offered, in binary terms, an option on evil. 1968 had significant tragedy, but optimism was still caked to the rotating wheel of pacifism and love-ins. MLK and Bobby Kennedy’s untimely deaths were harbingers of more significant shocks yet to come. In late 1969, after the summer of hate, the Rolling Stones headlined a concert at Altamont, California, that put the final pins in the wings of the butterfly, affixing America to the board of disassociation and, in doing so, registered its youthful dreamer status as a failed utopia swaddled in concrete and rebar.
This event at Altamont, headlined by Their Stanic Majesties, shifted America’s gravity as a final punctuating moment, a final nail in the coffin of possibility. In retrospect, it was a cataclysmic orgy of an event in which members of the Hell’s Angels started a brawl amid 300,000 concert-goers that ended with the violent deaths of a handful of young attendees. In many people’s estimation, this event can be seen as the turning point for everything that came after. The summer of love and its failed ideals levied American energy into pursuing what would become the neoliberal order and a rise to corporate globalism evinced later by capitalist and military-industrial imperial tendencies best exemplified not by free love and LSD mind expansion but instead by Wall Street’s economic tunnel vision and the temporary ecstasy of cocaine. The hippies had the drugs wrong, as did the Wall Street execs. They should have gotten creative and traded. Imagine hippies sliding into their 30s and 40s with an agenda or, by proxy, chilled-out day traders thinking about ecology while banging on a bong rip or two.
The importance of the moment, which acted as a tipping point for America, is significant as the following decades were spent in a period of bizarre stasis as the Vietnam War raged out of control. Watergate threatened the nation’s politically managed ideal of itself. Americans were forced to reckon with the collapse of Post-WWII ideals. Religion was a sham, Manifest Destiny was a lie built on gold and oil, and the country’s flower children wilted and dried in the ever-increasing strength of the sun as holes formed in the ozone and towns and their rivers choked with pollution and bodies from an increase in crime sprees. This moment cast doubt on America’s imperial power at home and abroad, and many Americans, including the advancing Boomers, were left to scratch their heads and wonder where it all went wrong and how the idealism of the 1968 moment could only end in dissolve with its tired remnants cast to the compost heap of history. That said, suburbia and television were clever and distracting implements of the country’s slow euthanasia. Distraction continues to be doled out at shopping malls, banks, and petrol stations-anywhere one can enlist the services of becoming numb to it all.
The West Coast was the theater for which many of these movements and events occurred. The Haight-Ashbury contingency of San Francisco was a veritable breeding ground for the flower power generation with its soup kitchens and day tripping. Free Love and communal sharing began within the slow think tanks of counter-culture peppered along the Californian coast. Sunlight was the pervasive ingredient along with the drugs. This epicenter of futurism and ecology also budded from the Berkely campus with its protests against the man and the police state, which finally, in a twist or irony, became The Family’s partial stomping grounds in just one short year. In the following years, the psychological fallout must have been devastating. Instead of making way for ecological, social, or progressive communal ideology, the takeaway was social decay, listlessness, and murder.
When I look at Mimi Plumb’s The Golden City (Stanley/Barker), I see the years following the late 60s, separated by a few decades of intervening time (1984-2020), as a litmus aesthetic for how to read what followed the counter-culture revolution. Instead of Fuller’s geodesic bio-domes or communal gardens, I see a wasteland of a terrain. I read the graffiti on the wall and see the dissatisfaction and the fraying tapestry of the have and have-nots with wide threads between. The dust and the concrete rubble are claustrophobic. The fires that once lit the imagination for change are now the fires lit along the piers at the waterfront. Christ, some of this looks like modern Syria, buildings hulled out as a type of social refugee shuffles along the golden paths that have lost all luster. The 49ers are now an awkward homage to jock straps and pigskin. The gold once power washed from the hills never quite trickled down to the masses that America purports to wish for, huddled or other. The only identifiable claim to the land is some asshole on horseback rushing over to greet us with a heavy bout of lung cancer and leather hide masculinity. Everything feels like a sham in these pictures. The grand reveal of The Golden City is that it’s more of a dreary mixture of tin and apathy.
The Golden City‘s concerns about the widening gap between rich and poor are apparent. The dissolution of middle ground is brought to the fore, and I am reminded of everything that I find rotten at the core of America. And yet, through Mimi’s observations, I am reminded that Americans themselves are ever-present and sometimes curiously hopeful people who can re-invent that same caked wheel when the need arises or when the threat of their cultural customs is held in question. To make images like this, you can only be a failed optimist, never a pessimist, as with pessimism, nothing exists outside of the fraudulent. In this, one must not acquiesce to despair and shit canning the whole operation. Mimi’s observations remind me that even in the hinterland experience of America at large, there is the potential for re-order and re-building. With the many ruined buildings in the book, I am reminded of Arnold Genthe’s photographs during the 1906 earthquake. The same earthquake in which his studio and glass plate negatives were destroyed, eliminating the history that came before that moment. Echoes of the New Tophographic’s sarcasm is hinted at, but less with bravado than concern in Plumb’s work. This makes it truly remarkable.
The book begins with a type of feminine protagonist building. We see the map and the territory through a solitary dreamer huddled up on a blanket, and the power of the girl and her somnambulism carries through the book like a quest dream, yet to be turned into a nightmare. There is an uncomfortable atmosphere, but it is not fear-laden nor without potential. It is queer, soluble, and begs questions about managing the future from that small space on the corner of the blanket. In speaking with Mimi, she told me that a significant amount of the edit was handled by Gregory at S/B. Their boundless recent contributions to the medium of the photobook have been noted. At this stage, Gregory’s powers of sequencing are forming into something exceptional, and I would suggest this is one of his more nuanced edits. The end of the book brings us in from the intemperate hostility of construction and deconstruction just outside the door to strange indoor spaces peopled by San Francisco’s lively community of masked ball enthusiasts and party-goers. It feels like a baroque ending to the wind that rustles through the hollowed-out building, waiting to topple in the next earthquake. I feel the sequence and the brilliant choice of cover, blown up from a photograph inside, are sage.
As with most Stanley/Barker titles, I would not sleep on this. As with ALL Plumb titles, there is an exceptional amount of work in her archive, and I have yet to be disappointed with her books and work. I look forward to more coming and believe I will not have to wait too long.