Photographer Michael Cooper's archive contains iconic images of the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and scores of well-known figures. David Herkt talks to his son, Adam Cooper, about his father's life and work, his tragic suicide and just what it felt like to be a child of the 60s.
"God knows how he kept on managing to load the camera in the condition that we were in," wrote Keith Richards, the lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, describing his friend, photographer Michael Cooper. "No matter how out of it he was, Michael always managed to get the camera to function."
The quote accompanies photographs of Richards, obviously relishing his altered state of mind, posing for Cooper's camera in sunglasses and a fleeced afghan coat – shots that were taken a day before the infamous 1967 Redlands drug-bust, with its "Naked Girl at Stones Party" headlines.
They are just some of the extraordinarily revealing contents of Blinds & Shutters, a selection from Cooper's archive. Now in the custody of his son, Adam, the photographs span the idealistic 1960s until the first harder years of the following decade. Cooper would die by his own hand in 1973, leaving more than 70,000 negatives to his young son.
Blinds & Shutters contains photographs that feel contemporary. There is a freedom and instantaneity in Cooper's style, with no sense of distance. Often, they were images captured on the fly with a sure eye. On the other hand, he was also capable of more composed studies, album covers or portrait shoots, where every detail was intentional and deliberate.
Cooper had a virtual '"All Areas Access" at crucial moments in cultural history and a deep personal relationship to many of its key figures. Richards and the demurely dressed singer, Marianne Faithfull, stand laughing on the front lawn of Richards' Redlands home, each holding a copy of the Evening Standard newspaper with its "Naked Girl at Stone's Party" headline – Richards pointing towards Faithfull with glee. A 3- or 4-year-old Adam Cooper in dungarees wanders amid the silk-uniformed Beatles and potted flowers in the psychedelic set constructed for the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.
"The thing about Michael," says Adam, "was that in all honesty he was a friend first and a photographer second. So, it put everything on a much more relaxed and personal level, particularly with the Stones. They went about their business and he went about his."
Cooper frames an LSD trip near Luggalor, a Gothic castle in the Wicklow mountains, laughing limousine rides in Paris, and a stoned Sunday afternoon in the English countryside. There are casual out-takes from the formal shoots of Sgt Pepper's and the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request. Famous people are glimpsed in private time.
"He had this amazing ability to not interrupt them or stop them or stage things in any way. It is very much what I call 'fly on the wall' stuff," Adam comments. "To quote Keith, for example, 'Most of the time we didn't even know he was taking photos' – and I think that was the tremendous ability he had, it was real moments in real time.
"It's the intimacy, the friendship, that he had with these characters, particularly with Keith, that allowed him the freedom to position himself to get himself where he wanted to be without molesting them, without stopping them from what they wanted to be doing."
Talking from his home in the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina, Adam is a measured and reflective speaker. He considers his words as he attempts to encapsulate the world in which he lived as a young child in the 1960s.
"There was a cultural revolution. Before that, writers and artists did not frequent with rock musicians – and fashion models didn't mix with any of the other types. By chance or by decision, Michael was right in the centre and realised that he had the opportunity to commit it all to film, which basically meant that it lasted forever.
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"The important thing about the 60s in London at the time was that there was this explosion of youth and culture and everything else, which was fantastic," Cooper continues. "They all secretly had a dream – it really felt like they had the power to bring about change … They felt that this is our moment, our moment to express ourselves through our art, through protest, through whatever it was."
There is a word in German, zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – and Blinds and Shutters is a comprehensive record of the soul of a decade. Ranging from personal images of celebrities and artists to iconic moments of rebellion and its consequences, Cooper framed the human hopes and actions of a whole era with his camera.
"The thing about Michael," Adam adds, "is that 99 per cent of the work in Blinds and Shutters was non-commissioned. With Michael it was nothing to do with money, it was just, 'I have to do this because it is important to me and I feel it needs to be committed to film.' And when you put things on that level, it changes everything.
"Michael was constantly broke. We didn't live a life of luxury because he wasn't being paid a fortune for these images. There was the fact that he just said, 'Chicago democratic Convention 1968? I have to be there. I have to cover it.' And he did ..."
"He had literally bumped into the writer Terry Southern in a bar at the Chateau Marmot in LA because he went out there to cover a Byrds concert that he wasn't even commissioned to cover. Terry said, 'Let's have a quick drink, I haven't a lot of time, I'm off to Chicago.' And Michael said, 'Why are you off to Chicago?' And Terry said, 'I'm covering the Democratic Convention.' Michael said immediately, 'I'm coming with you.'"
In Cooper's Chicago photographs, ranks of repressive riot officers stand guard in gas-masks. An ABC news camera looks into the convention centre with a robotic eye. Terry Southern and fellow-writers William Burroughs and Jean Genet join the poet Allen Ginsberg for a sit-in. Tear-gas whirls in the air with the smoke from hippie campfires. Mayor Daley's visored police operate sinister road-blocks.
"He covered this event and came home, and as a consequence of what went down with all the riots and the police violence and everything else, he sold images to the newspapers and magazines and that's how he used to make his money."
Adam frequently features in the emblematic photographs, the focus of a father's loving attention.
"I have nothing other than fond memories, in the sense that I was living in this crazy cultural explosion that was going on but at the same time – a question I'm always asked by the press – is that I didn't really understand or realise who these people were that I was surrounded with. Our house in Notting Hill in London – the Stones were coming around all the time, various other personalities were coming round – but I really did not know who they were and what the importance of these iconic figures was …
"I grew up, until Michael died, as a very happy child because every day was different. I was travelling a lot with Michael and we were constantly out there on the streets and spending time in Michael's studio just off the famous King's Road …
"For a kid my age it was spectacular. I'm often asked what was your experience of standing on the set of Sgt Pepper's with The Beatles behind you, and I have to say, 'I've got no idea' because I didn't even really know who The Beatles really were. It was just the fact that I wandered into the set and I picked up something on the set and I was more intrigued by that than I was with the famous Fab Four behind me."
Cooper was only 9 years old when he came home from a weekend with a friend to find the house silent.
"As long as I live, I will never forget that moment when I got back and put the key in the door," he wrote. "I felt all cold and just knew something was awfully wrong. I went into the house and there was nobody there, which was strange and I sat down and immediately the phone rang. It was my grandmother …"
At the beginning of Blinds & Shutters, Cooper publishes the complete text of his father's final suicide note: "Dearest Adam, You are going to feel a lot of pain in the next few months and there is nothing I can do to change that …"
Michael gives Adam advice on managing his feelings, following the "sound of a different drum", and tells him that he has left him the legacy of his photographic archive and instructions on what to do with it.
"I just felt something inside of me that it was important of me to allow the letter to be published," Adam says about the suicide note. "A lot of people questioned it and said 'Don't you think it is a little bit too personal?'
"I have never felt any animosity or anger at Michael for the decision he took - quite the contrary. As I have grown up through the years, I have discovered this amazing collection he left me and the real purpose and the real talent of what he was all about."
Blinds & Shutters was originally published by Genesis Publications as a limited edition of 5000 copies in 1989. Each of the books also feature a selection of autographs including those of Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, Dennis Hopper, Francis Bacon, Dusty Springfield, Ringo Starr, Andy Warhol, Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg.
There is also a surprising New Zealand connection.
The book's co-publisher, David Hedley, owns Hedley's Booksellers in Masterton, which opened in 1907 and has been in his family for three generations. Beginning with a trip to Europe, Hedley's personal association with London-based Genesis Publications and the late Brian Roylance led to a series of luxury limited editions.
While the company has produced facsimiles of Captain Cook's logbooks, it is perhaps best known for many high-quality photo-books devoted to rock music.
Blinds & Shutters was originally published in 1990. It contains more than 600 of Michael Cooper's photographs and a 30,000-word text from 93 contributors, including Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithfull, Allen Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen. Each book is also signed by at least six of the writers.
Of the original 1990 edition of 5000 copies, 600 were left unbound, due to a specialist book-bindery going out of business. They are only now being released for sale, rebound, 30 years later.
'We set out to find as many of the subjects of the 70,000 photographs in the collection as possible,' Hedley says of their original task when faced with Cooper's vast archive. "While Michael recorded the spirit of the 60s in his photographs, he was less reliable when it came to captioning his work. He was living the story, rather than merely cataloguing it."
The project also required collecting more than 50,000 signatures for the limited edition. Hedley tells of an ingenious technique developed for placing pages in front of people as they were interviewed, then sliding the copies away so another one was instantly in its place.
"Even the most meticulously slow signatories could complete numerous sheets in an hour of talking without realising quite how many they had done," he adds.
For Adam Cooper, there are many mixed emotions accompanying the final release of the book's last stocks.
"One quote I think is important is from Anita Pallenberg, who unfortunately is not with us anymore. She once said that the greatest thing about Michael's photographs is their honesty – because they tell the truth, the real truth of what went down in the decade of the 60s.
"When she told me that, tears rolled down my face because it epitomised exactly what Michael was all about. In those days it wasn't a drive for negotiation and making money, it was a drive for belief and achievement and if money came through afterwards, all the better.
"I'm very proud of the book," he concludes. "I have never had a bad a comment about it – ever."
Hedley's Booksellers and Karen Walker combine to open a pop-up bookstore at 52 Tyler St, Britomart, Auckland on November 7, offering unique copies of Blinds & Shutters as well as a selection of other books curated by Hedley and Walker.