Herb Greene’s Photography Offers Much More Than Music Icons

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A laughing woman with long brown hair stands before a white wall that's covered in scribbles and messages. She is wearing a simple tank, beaded necklaces and a winter coat that's falling from her shoulders.
Janis Joplin, as photographed by Herb Greene at his 66 Baker St. apartment in the Haight. (Herb Greene/ Courtesy of the Haight Street Art Center)

I couldn’t give a tiny rat’s ass about the Grateful Dead. There. I said it. Ordinarily, I’d shy away from announcing such a thing publicly, at the risk of awakening an army of pitchfork-wielding Deadheads. (Not the most measured of fanbases.) However, it would be wrong not to mention it before I start talking about a new exhibit of photography by Herb Greene given that Herb Greene is primarily remembered for his Grateful Dead portraits.

If you are indeed a Deadhead, or someone who is still reveling in a musical moment that existed over half a century ago, you don’t need me to explain the selling points of The Haight-Ashbury Experience and the Pursuit of Happiness: The Photography of Herb Greene. You will go for the perfectly lovely photographs of the Grateful Dead, their former outfit The Warlocks and Janis Joplin. You might also go for the expertly composed portraits of Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, The Jeff Beck Group and The Charlatans.

A pretty young woman kneels on a green and purple couch, twisting her head up towards the camera.
Grace Slick in her Jefferson Airplane heyday. (Herb Greene/ Courtesy of the Haight Street Art Center)

If you are under the age of 60 or wondering why on God’s green earth San Francisco needs yet another exhibition glorifying the Summer of Love, I have some news that might pleasantly surprise you.

First and foremost, in addition to his rock photography, Greene also made a habit of immortalizing the street life in the Haight when it was just another San Francisco neighborhood. He photographed the small businesses, local children, families and elderly residents already there when the hippie invasion first began.

These images present the neighborhood before it was a tie-dye-soaked tourist attraction and, crucially, capture the exact moment the first wave of disaffected youth arrived and changed the area forever. Though there is an entire wall of this kind of street photography at The Photography of Herb Greene, I found myself wishing they inhabited the whole space.

A flute-playing hippie and a bohemian friend, both male, walk along a tree lined street. Behind them a man in a suit and hat walks under a sign that reads 'Sher Real Estate INCOME TAX.’
Income tax with a side of street flautist. Haight Street in the ’60s. (Herb Greene/ Courtesy of Haight Street Art Center)

This exhibit also deserves kudos for painting a picture of the bohemian community of kids who were hanging around the Haight at the time. Yes, there are the requisite shots here of naked young people dancing and children clutching flowers at The Human Be-In. But Greene’s photographs also introduce us to the hitchhikers, street musicians and young optimists who migrated to San Francisco in the late 1960s and reveled in the new freedoms it offered. I am indefatigable when it comes to looking at subculture-immersed young people, no matter what era they’re from, and Greene’s photos more than do the Summer of Love kids justice.

Three teenagers, two females wearing embroidered shawls and long dresses and one young man wearing slacks and a jacket stand on a street corner huddled together. The word ASHBURY is carved into the sidewalk.
Three teens hanging in the Haight, 1960s. (Herb Greene/ Courtesy of Haight Street Art Center)

One of Greene’s favorite places to photograph these young people was in front of the distinctive hieroglyph-covered wall in his studio, where he also shot famous musicians. The Photography of Herb Greene condenses many of these portraits down onto a single collage board of images. The format hammers home that the hieroglyph wall itself was a great leveler. Famous or not, Greene treated all of his subjects the same in front of it — they became individual characters, each as important as the last.


Viewed as a collection now, it also reflects the monoculture of that scene. Though Greene himself was Chicano, every single person featured in the wall collage appears to be white.

That lack of diversity runs through much of Greene’s 1960s photography, a reflection of the Bay Area rock ’n’ roll scene of the time. (A portrait of Taj Mahal and his dog offers a particularly beautiful exception.) As such, Greene’s 1970s-era portraits of Sly and the Family Stone and the Pointer Sisters reflect how the mainstream music world began to open up once the Summer of Love ended. These images, shot in color, inject some vibrancy into The Photography of Herb Greene. The original photo that Sly Stone used for the cover of 1975’s High on You is a genuine joy to behold in real life.

A Black man with cornrows sits in a wooden chair wearing a tie-dye shirt and slacks. He is leaning forward as if in conversation. At his side is a shaggy white dog.
Taj Majal and his dog. (Herb Greene/ Courtesy of Haight Street Art Center)

Greene also documented the artists (including Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso and Alton Kelley), writers (like Neal Cassady), concert promoters (Bill Graham and Chet Helms) and roadies who helped turn what was going on in the Haight into a national moment. Their inclusion here offers a glimpse behind the scenes — and an essential reminder that the bands didn’t do it all on their own.

The Photography of Herb Greene, then, is about much more than the musicians still eulogized on Haight Street today. It’s about the larger community that made the scene what it was. It’s about how music changes and evolves over time. And it’s about a neighborhood of regular people who inadvertently got caught up in a movement. That’s worth giving a rat’s ass about, even if you don’t care for the Grateful Dead.

‘The Haight-Ashbury Experience and the Pursuit of Happiness: The Photography of Herb Greene’ is on view at the Haight Street Art Center (215 Haight St.) through May 29, 2023. Exhibition details here.