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This Photographer Captured Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and More Before They Blew Up

Written by Christina CampodonicoPublished Feb. 23, 2023 • 3:03pm
The Grateful Dead on the corner of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco | Herb Greene/Courtesy Haight Street Art Center

For legendary rock & roll photographer Herb “Herbie” Greene, mega musicians like Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick weren’t just portrait subjects—they were friends. 

In fact, one of Greene’s fondest memories of Joplin is meeting the soulful singer for the first time at a flat on Pine Street and photographing her without makeup. 

“Janis walks in and she says, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ And I say, ‘Well, you might put on a little makeup.’ She said, ‘Honey, I already did,’” Greene said, recalling the singer’s quip. 

A photo shows Janis Joplin before she became a household name. | Herb Greene/Courtesy Haight Street Art Center

That rapport, intimacy and unvarnished access shines through in the images of The Haight-Ashbury Experience and the Pursuit of Happiness: The Photography of Herb Greene, a retrospective of the photographer’s work opening Feb. 23 at Haight Street Art Center. The photos span from the halcyon days of Haight-Ashbury’s hippie era to several years after the sun set on the Summer of Love.  

While the period is known for sex, drugs and rock & roll, Kelly Harris, Haight Street Art’s executive director, and Theron Kabrich, the exhibition’s curator, both note that Greene’s photos highlight the innocence of that time by capturing some of the era’s biggest talents before they were burdened by the weight of fame and the machinations of the music industry.  

“It really captures the essence of the Haight-Ashbury, right at the dawn of the bohemian scene,” Harris said. “At the time that Jerry Garcia was becoming a musician and the scene was becoming what we know it to be now, Herbie was also becoming a photographer.”

Heavy metal rockers Led Zeppelin | Herb Greene/Courtesy Haight Street Art Center

What’s more, Kabrich continued, Greene knew many of those he photographed, which gave him unique access.

Case in point: A collection of 160 passport-size photos on a contact sheet-like grid curated by Kabrich of various bands and musicians standing in front of Greene’s iconic Egyptian hieroglyphics wall. At one point or another, everyone from Joplin to Jerry to Jefferson Airplane took a turn in front of the famed backdrop. Kabrich likens this collection of photos to a yearbook capturing the fun-loving innocence and promise of an entire generation of artists. The way Kabrich sees it, Greene was not just capturing budding talent but also the zeitgeist.

It's the innocence of ‘I don't know where I'm going, but I know I'll know when I get there,’” Kabrich said. “At that time, you could be Peter Pan, and you maybe could fly.”

The Pointer Sisters | Herb Greene/Courtesy Haight Street Art Center

Looking back, Greene, says that his immersion in San Francisco’s counterculture all came down to being in the right place at the right time. “It all was serendipity,” he remembered. 

Greene thinks that the Summer of Love era has been overly romanticized in the public imagination and is open about its dark side. Still, he does remember his experiences fondly—from stumbling upon Jerry Garcia in a North Beach cafe to meeting Janis Joplin for the first time without a lick of makeup. 

Jeff Beck | Herb Greene/Courtesy Haight Street Art Center

“We were all family and everybody took care of each other,” Greene recalled. "We all visited each other at all hours unannounced, and it was it was fun, you know?” 

Ultimately, Kabrich hopes this ode to Greene’s work brings those who visit Haight Street Art Center—located near the neighborhood where Joplin, Garcia and more spent so much time—closer to San Francisco’s history.  

Visitors can emulate Jefferson Airplane and others in front of a replica of Greene’s hieroglyphics wall where you can take selfies. And, if you show up at tonight’s ticketed opening, a professional photographer will snap your photo as a DJ spins classic vinyl. Haight Street Art Center’s print shop will also be open.

Christina Campodonico can be reached at christina@sfstandard.com


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