Elliott’s Writings: Stars and Stones
In 1967 a lot of things were wrong with America and I felt I had to say something about what was going on. I wanted to take pictures that explained the truth to people and presented them with alternatives. I worked with several underground newspapers, and chose what I wanted to photograph. A police press pass gave me special access to events.
At peace demonstrations I saw a lot of violence and police brutality. The police almost always provoked the violence, an aspect of the situation the mainstream press was not reporting. Newspaper accounts of demonstrations I had been to bore little relation to the experience I had had, almost as if the reporters had been to a different demonstration.
The establishment media devoted more space to movie stars, corporate announcements, and singular violent crimes than to an expression of social and human conscience by tens of thousands of people.
One night there was a demonstration against South African diamond mines, on Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center. The police charged into the peaceful picket line and began hitting people with nightsticks. Everyone ran, but the police caught up with one young man who had a limp and beat him to the ground for no reason whatsoever. I took a picture. Someone yelled that Bobby Kennedy was right below us in the ice-skating rink.
I ran down and told him that the police were beating people on the street above, naively expecting him to immediately run upstairs and stop it. He was cautious, obviously not wanting or able to get personally involved. I was surprised by his reluctance to get involved. He sent an aide to see what was happening. By that time it was over.
I then rushed my film to the Associated Press, one of the largest press agencies in the world. After the film was processed, the editors saw the picture and told me, “No, it’s not for us, we don’t want it.” That was the first time I had any personal contact with those involved with the news that the world reads, and I saw that they were closed to the truth. It was just as shocking to me as the police brutality I had photographed. The people who controlled the media disliked hippies and were against the demonstrations. Their failure to report events truthfully was not an oversight.
So the pictures were published in the underground press, whose editors sometimes went too far the other way, dehumanizing and condemning anyone who was not on their side – urging anger and aggression rather than peaceful resolution of conflict.
That police brutality was not an isolated incident. I saw it often at other demonstrations. After a while I found the dynamic of many peace demonstrations to be a game between the police and the demonstrators. The question was not who was right or wrong but whether or not you wanted to play that game. You could be the policeman or the demonstrator, but either way you were still part of the fighting. The “isness” of the situation was conflict.
During this time I also took photographs at celebrity press parties because I wanted to be part of the glamorous world which I had seen in media all my life. The famous and would-be-famous went to be seen, publicized, glamorized, and admired. No one was really having fun. It was an ego trip. They painted themselves and made believe they were beautiful, saying in effect, “My breasts are beautiful, my eyebrows are beautiful,” but no one said, “My mind is beautiful, my heart is beautiful.” It was too artificial for me, and I never felt good about being there. I saw that Hollywood celebrities had no real relationship to my life.
At one awards ceremony Dustin Hoffman told me how ridiculous he thought these events were, and he was obviously uncomfortable about having to be there. We were in a room with chintzy flowered wallpaper, rows of chairs with the actors’ names pasted on them, and the actors were lined up like cattle going to slaughter. The absurdity of the star culture with its hero worship, prize awards, and contrived media coverage seemed obvious to us both.
It struck me that when you watch a film or a television show, what you see goes inside your head and registers as truth, as reality. This impression goes beyond what you think about it, and becomes part of you, almost like a stamp on your brain. It seemed sad that the whole world was so obsessed with these people because of the illusions created by the films they were in. It was all make-believe, and the truth became visible through my lens.
The photographs that came from these events were often ridiculous, to the point of being humorous. I never meant to take a “bizarre” picture of anyone: they happened by chance and showed me more about what was going on at those parties than I realized while I was there. The camera saw more than I did. It penetrated the illusion of glamour.
I also realized that photographs say just as much about the photographer as they do about the subject. The photos of the press parties exude such an unpleasant atmosphere because I felt out of place at these events. Other photographers, standing next to me, produced traditional, glamorous movie-star images. My pictures reflected that aspect of the events which impacted most on me-the falseness and superficiality. They were a reflection of my inner feelings toward what was happening-a flow of energy, channeled and filtered through my own person. My camera never lied, and taught me much about what I was seeing.
During that time I also discovered the grace of chance. By letting myself be carried along by circumstances at the press parties or peace demonstrations, I would accidentally get perfectly composed images. Images that were more interesting to me than if I had been able to shoot one which was visually composed in a traditional way.
Many of my best photographs were made because I had no desire to push aside the people who were standing in front of me. I just held my camera above my head and let myself go with the crowd. From those experiences I learned that chance is one of the most important and useful things in life. I would advise anyone who is serious about photography to try taking pictures without looking through the viewfinder.
With this negative atmosphere prevailing at most peace demonstrations and press parties, I lost interest in photographing them. I had done it. The situations were repetitive, and the pictures began to sour. I wasn’t interested in showing violence or people looking strange. I was interested in beauty. I discovered I was an artist, not a violent revolutionary