Weyant on Klein, 'Irwin Klein and the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico'

Benjamin Klein, ed.
Thomas B. Weyant

Benjamin Klein, ed. Irwin Klein and the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 192 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-8510-1.

Reviewed by Thomas B. Weyant (University of Akron) Published on H-1960s (July, 2017) Commissioned by Zachary J. Lechner

Depicting Freak Communards in the Southwest

Irwin Klein and the New Settlers is not simply a collection of photographs of hippies in New Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While it physically takes the shape of a coffee table book (roughly 11" by 10"), it seeks to be more than a conversation piece the next time your friends visit. Benjamin Klein, nephew of the photographer Irwin Klein, has edited a volume that includes both the images of the counterculture in northern New Mexico as well as a few short essays that contextualize Irwin Klein’s work and the “great hippie invasion” of the Southwest. While the bulk of the book is the images taken by Irwin Klein between 1967 and 1971, one would be remiss to ignore the accompanying essays.

Benjamin Klein, lecturer at California State University, East Bay, has moved beyond his comfort zone of early modern Europe to stitch together a volume of images and essays that individuals studying the Sixties counterculture will find fascinating. As a college student in New York and Chicago during the mid-1950s, Irwin Klein gravitated toward the counterculture of the period--the Beats--which fueled his later fascination with the movements of the 1960s. He eventually dropped out of the University of Minnesota, where he was working on a doctorate in English, in 1963 to take up more seriously his lifelong passion for photography. Klein scored his first recognition when Modern Photography magazine published a handful of photos and a brief blurb about him in 1964. Over the next decade, his work would appear in several exhibits including one at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In the late 1960s, Klein traveled several times to New Mexico, in part to visit his brother Alan who was living on a settlement near the small community of El Rito, as well as to photograph members of counterculture who had immigrated to the region. Prior to his death in 1974, Irwin Klein had organized his photos of communes and settlements around Taos, New Mexico, into a volume he entitled “The New Settlers of New Mexico: Photographs, 1967-1971"; however, he failed to find a publisher for his work. His nephew, Benjamin, took up the volume and added three essays from himself, Tim Hodgdon, Lois Rudnick, and David Farber, which represent the majority of the volume’s text.

The first essay, by Benjamin Klein and Tim Hodgdon (a scholar of gender roles in post-1945 American social movements), explores the intellectual framework into which Irwin Klein placed his photographs: the idea of innocence transformed into experience. The chapter is an edited version of an article Klein and Hodgdon published in the New Mexico Historical Review in 2012. Klein and Hodgdon spend a good deal of time exploring why Klein used the term “new settlers” in his original manuscript. They argue that Klein’s use of the term established a sense of continuity between the white pioneer settlers of the previous century and the counterculturalists of the Sixties. Furthermore, the notion of settlers distinguished them from the transient and temporary hippie visitors who also inundated northern New Mexico. By calling them “new settlers,” Klein was arguing that there existed a group within the counterculture movement that sought to embrace an agrarian life that existed beyond the simplistic hippie notions of freedom. There was a general sense within the counterculture of the need to reject consumerism and return to a simpler lifeway that focused on production over consumption. Klein suggested the new arrivals found a model in the yeoman farmer archetype. His photos attempted to document and present the transition from idealistic newcomer to experienced settler, as these newcomers learned how to live and work within an agrarian setting. Ultimately, the new settlers found themselves rediscovering the lessons of earlier white pioneers, learning about the limitations of individualism and of the interdependence of communities. According to Klein and Hodgdon, the images Klein captured convey a greater authenticity than the many photo essays done by various magazines and news agencies of the time because Klein was not there to simply take pictures and leave; he was as much a participant as an observer. Thus, through his sympathetic treatment of his subjects Klein was able to capture better their optimism and determination as they shed their initial idealism through the realities of settler life.

The second essay, from Lois Rudnick, professor emerita of American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, discusses the hippie migration to northern New Mexico by identifying differences in who came and for what purposes, as well as explaining how they interacted with the local population. Rudnick argues that by the late 1960s, northern New Mexico was something of a new Mecca for the counterculture, where individuals felt they could make a new start or take a temporary rest. The region had attracted individuals who questioned contemporary sensibilities since the early 1950s, with Beat poets and artists making temporary sojourns into the wilderness. Rudnick argues that some settlements in the region sought to become retreats, places to withdraw from wider American society, while others sought to become shining beacons for the possibilities of new human existence. Rudnick notes that several of these new communities attempted to appropriate, piecemeal, the cultural structures of Native Americans due to the romantic belief of Native Americans’ intuitively more harmonious relationship with nature; however, these settlers also often rejected or disparaged local Hispanic culture, suggesting the deeply entrenched ethnic ideals of mid-twentieth-century white American culture. In most cases, these new communities became hybrids of multiple cultures, at times discordant and contradictory. Rudnick identifies some groups as analogous to what Irwin Klein would call “new settlers,” individuals who sought a permanent residence based in principles that were conducive to the hard work of agrarian life. Others expressed an extreme individualism perched between nihilism and hedonism that occasionally mixed with radical politics to create violence. Finally, Rudnick identifies a key site of friction between the hippies and the locals, the question of poverty. Many of these white hippies came from middle-class backgrounds and unabashedly accepted government assistance, seemingly mocking the institutional and systemic poverty locals endured. Rudnik’s essay offers a wider lens through which to view the hippie migration to the Southwest during the Sixties.

The final essay, from David Farber (Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of Modern American History at the University of Kansas) and Benjamin Klein, provides a more in-depth look at one community in northern New Mexico, El Rito. Farber and Klein argue that while El Rito is not as well known as other sites within the countercultural geography, it was still an important site for the counterculture. El Rito, like much of northern New Mexico, entered the hippie imagination as an exotic oasis in which they could pursue their vision of an authentic human society. Farber and Klein discuss how earlier counterculturalists provided opportunities for hippies of the Sixties to enter the region. In particular, they highlight the former rocket scientist Peter van Dresser, who moved to El Rito in 1949 and engaged in solar energy experiments, and Larry Little Bird, who had a strong connection with Beat poets and artists like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure. Van Dresser and Little Bird provided a conduit through which members of the various counterculture scenes throughout the United States could funnel into northern New Mexico. Farber and Klein argue that while most did not stay in El Rito, it was the entry point for so many, including Irwin Klein, and therefore deserves special notice.

Irwin Klein’s photographs make up much of the remainder of the volume and constitute nine sections that, in his estimation, present the transition of the new settlers from idealistic innocents to experienced agrarians. In the first two sections, Klein presents images of individuals and groups who have recently migrated to the region, including a series of photographs on the arrival of members of The Hog Farm, the seemingly quintessential Sixties hippie commune. While these first two series demonstrate the idealistic arrival of the counterculture in the region, the next few sets show the beginning of their transition through experience. In the middle five series, Klein presents more images of work in addition to the realities of life in the mountains. Images of broken-down cars, ruins of earlier homesteads, and occasional moments of relaxation interspersed with depictions of the isolated landscape and the back-breaking labors of daily life suggest that the lived experience did not match the ideals of first arrival. The final sets show moments of joy, especially in the wedding celebration of Mary Mitchell and Robbie Gordon at Arroyo Hondo in 1969. These images depict individuals taking time to give thanks for what their hard work has produced and for the new life they have begun, with its hardships and rewards. In all, it is a poignant portrayal of the counterculture’s experiences in northern New Mexico in the late Sixties and provides a visual complement to the ever-growing historiography of the counterculture.

In all, Irwin Klein and the New Settlers is a fascinating look into the counterculture of northern New Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The short essays complement and complicate Irwin Klein’s photographs, helping to build on his theme of innocence to experience. Aside from a few minor proofreading errors, the text is well written and accessible. The volume should find a welcome place on both bookshelf and coffee table.

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Citation: Thomas B. Weyant. Review of Klein, Benjamin, ed., Irwin Klein and the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico. H-1960s, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48863

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H-1960's readers may enjoy Benjamin Klein's new photo essay on H-Celebration about countercultural wedding and Fourth of July celebrations in the 1960's. The essay, "Photographs of Countercultural Celebrations in Northern New Mexico" includes several photographs of the Hog Farm and other hippies from Irwin Klein and the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico.