The Altamont Speedway Free Festival has become an emblem of the upheavals and aftershocks of a decade of change. At Altamont, Owens captured a generation’s desire to stand up and raise its voices against the war in Vietnam, against segregation and racial discrimination, against authority in general.
The lineup at Altamont featured the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Carlos Santana and many others; Owens was hired by the Associated Press to cover what promised to be a huge rock concert. But when Owens arrived at the Altamont Speedway with “two Nikons, three lenses, thirteen rolls of film, a sandwich and a jar of water,” he witnessed one of the defining moments of the late ‘60s. At Altamont the utopian hopes and innocent conviviality of the 1960s gave way to tension and a deadly violence; as the Stones continued to play and much of the crowd remained oblivious, an 18-year-old African American boy named Meredith Hunter was killed by the Hells Angels hired as concert security. This book captures the festival’s agitational energy that manifested itself in slogans and billboards, sit-ins and demonstrations and concerts that were treated as collective rites.
Bill Owens (born 1938) made his name in 1973 with the publication of Suburbia, one of several monographic studies he undertook into the customs of middle-class America. Whether documenting the American suburbs or the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, Owens has always approached photography with a perspective grounded in the observational methods of the social sciences; he imagines himself as a “visual anthropologist.”
Bill Owens,Altamont 1969