From Haight Ashbury to the Rainbow Gathering

Paul Clark

In 2004, Steve Shapiro’s son gave him a ticket to Burning Man, the huge arts and dance festival held annually in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It changed Shapiro forever, he said.

Out of that - and from following his son to dance festivals around the country - came “Bliss: Transformational Festivals & the Neo Hippie”(powerHouse Books), Shapiro’s photo book of the ecstatic nature of free-form dance that he’ll talk about at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19 at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville. His comments and photos should appeal to any Valley resident of a certain age.

In “Bliss,” Schapiro, an internationally renowned photographer famous for his photographs of the original hippie era in San Francisco, follows his son Theophilus Donoghue on his journey to enlightenment at “transformational festivals” held throughout the country.

“You’re overcome with the sense of joy everywhere,” said Shapiro, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Paris Match and Rolling Stone. People he saw at the Mystic Garden (Oregon) and Shangri-La (Minnesota) festivals, among others - primarily young but also some older hippies as well - “are into meditation, prayer, yoga and ecstatic dancing as a way of entering altered states, as opposed to psychedelics (drugs),” he said in a recent interview.

Dancing at these festivals, which often began with bands playing at 10 a.m., is how they transcend themselves, he said.

As the smiling faces in his photographs bear out, “you’re overcome with a sense of joy everywhere,” Shapiro said. ‘“Bliss’ (the book) is about joy. What a joyous adventure this (dancing) is for people.”

In “Bliss,” Schapiro captures the multitudes who come to commune with nature, other like-minded souls, and all that is divine and inspirational in the multi-hued spectrum of human spirituality. He focuses on a subculture of the current hippie counterculture known as “Bliss Ninnies” - people who embrace meditation and dancing as a way to reach ecstatic states of joy.

The book provides an overview of a new contemporary hippie life within America introduced to Schapiro by his son who began his own journey into “bliss” at age 23.

In his introduction, Donoghue writes that “many people think that hippies were a phenomena of the 60’s/early 70’s, the movement never ended; it simply vacated the cities in order to live in eco-villages (hundreds throughout the States) and congregate for annual festivals, most notably ‘The Rainbow Gathering’.

“The current hippie generation,” he writes, “definitely still has a strong political awareness and activist spirit, but the ‘blissed out’ portion of this ‘family’ that these photos document are primarily concerned about spirituality as opposed to politics as being a means of improving the world.”

“I spoke to one young hippie guy,” Shapiro said, “and he was saying ‘I’m not a Catholic, I’m not a Baptist, I’m a ‘festivalitarian.’ It becomes a new kind of religion. It has a spiritual basis.”

Born and raised in New York City, Schapiro attended Amherst College and graduated from Bard College, and studied photography with the legendary W. Eugene Smith. As a budding photographer, he got an early break: an assignment from Life magazine.

Schapiro’s photographs were included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1968 exhibition “Harlem On My Mind.” His work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian, The High Museum of Art, and the National Portrait Gallery. Schapiro’s recent solo shows were in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, London and Paris.