Very early in my career I did a portrait of Yoko Ono at a gallery in Beverly Hills for what was touted as the last exhibit of John Lennon’s complete “Bag One” series. When the sitting was finished they opened the doors to let the patrons in and it was there that I first met Timothy Leary. Timothy and I casually struck up a conversation and we immediately had a connection. Over the next few years he became something of a mentor to me as I was trying to find my voice in photography.
I enjoyed hearing first hand of everything I was born too late to experience myself, the 60’s counter-culture movement, The Summer of Love, the acid experiments, his stints behind bars and his failed campaign for California Governor (which spawned the Beatle’s “Come Together“). He partied with Dylan, Warhol, Joplin, the Dead, the Stones, the Beatles, Hendrix…everyone I worshiped. From West Point to Harvard, from Lennon’s Montreal Bed-In to Marilyn Monroe, he had great stories and was gracious enough to share them. We went to live concerts and some speaking gigs, but typically we would gather at his Beverly Hills home that served as a vortex of the bazaar and sublime as interesting and influential people from every walk of life would appear and disappear.
I was fascinated by Tim’s ability to “see the big picture” and point to the cause and effect of any specific trend or event while referencing historical, cultural, political, moral and scientific references. Timothy Leary remains to this day one of the most intelligent people I have had the good fortune to encounter. His nimble mind and free thinking is likely why President Richard Nixon declared him the “the most dangerous man in America”. Even though he is widely considered one of the most polarizing figures of the Twentieth Century, the man that I encountered was always sincere, thoughtful, playful, kind and humble.
The first portrait I did of Leary was at his home in front of a Mary Woronov painting of a drug deal going down in a bathroom entitled “It’s $20.”
On another occasion he asked me in a hurried tone to come right over and shoot a portrait to accompany a book he had written. When I arrived he had clearly taken his own advice and had recently “Turned On” and the only way I could get him to focus on the camera was to take a very tight photo with the lens right in his face and keep my hand like a vise on the top of his head to keep him turning and finding something more interesting elsewhere in the room. When I returned a couple of days later to show him the proof sheets (yeah…remember film?) he immediately pointed to a specific frame and said “that one”. What he noticed in a split second was the right side of his face was smiling while the left side was frowning. He felt it spoke to the constant speculation of his true nature – good or evil.
I recall a quick conversation about what we both assumed would be our last portrait together and he referenced a previous discussion we had on the role that the textures in a bathroom can have on a person while under the influence of psilocybin. Since our first shoot was in front of a painting of a bathroom we decided to bring it full circle and make the last photo of him in his own bathroom. Even though he was visibly gaunt and in failing health, the sparkle in his eye and his exuberance for the future never dimmed.
Turn on, tune in, drop out, think for yourself and question authority