Historical Society Exhibit Captures Spirit of the 60s

John Lennon # 11 by Susan Wood.
John Lennon # 11 by Susan Wood.
John Lennon # 11 by Susan Wood.

By Tim Sommer

Imagine a Manhattan full of 1960s Mad Men magic. The canyons of the city are golden, glowing, and shimmering with steam; the skyscrapers are silver, sepia, and star-bright with light; and mod, streamlined offices buzz with business.

That city is still alive in the extraordinary work of Amagansett’s Susan Wood, the celebrated photographer who has been shooting fashion, food, the famous and the infamous since the dawn of the 1960s.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono by Susan Wood.
John Lennon & Yoko Ono by Susan Wood.

“New York was wonderful,” enthuses Ms. Wood, whose work will be on display at “Right On! The Lennon Years, Photographs by Susan Wood 1968 – 1978,” a show presented by the East Hampton Historical Society that opens this week. “It might have been what Paris was for Hemmingway in the ‘20s. All sorts of people in journalism and the arts, we were all connected. I was a muse to someone, other times someone was a muse to me. It was intellectually, socially, and sexually dynamic, and exciting, and free.”

Ms. Wood, whose pictures document an era bursting with the most extraordinary seismic changes in politics and the arts, worked extensively for Look, New York, Vogue, People and many of the leading news and fashion outlets of the time.

“I was just so lucky,” said Ms. Wood. “Today there are so many people in photography, it’s a very hard thing for them to get ahead. It’s a hugely occupied field, everyone has a camera, and digital photography makes it a lot easier. But back then we had so much trouble with film, and exposures, and sometimes there was silver shortage, and sometimes that material itself from Kodak or whoever was faulty, and you had to deal with that. You would bite your nails before you got your negatives out of development.”

Alongside striking fashion portraits that reveal an extraordinary blend of warmth, risk, and composition, the show also highlights Ms. Wood’s affecting and celebrated images of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

“I was in London with Look magazine in 1968,” Ms. Wood explains, “and Betty Rollins, who was a friend of mine, had roomed with Yoko at Sarah Lawrence, so I suggested to the art director that I do the story. John would make up songs about Sarah Lawrence and sing them. In those days, these are stories we would do with the subjects, it was a very cooperative effort. Part of my aesthetic was to try and catch some character and special quality of the people that is not just the public face. And they were very open to that. These were warm, wonderful moments.”

Ms. Wood captured the legendary couple during one of the most pivotal and emotional points in their relationship. Yoko has just moved into John’s house in suburban London, and in many of the pictures, physical evidence of John’s first wife, Cynthia, still abounds. Ms. Wood’s pictures reveal Lennon and Ms. Ono beyond the myth. Clutching each other and clasping cigarettes, wrapped in old coats, with leaves and smoke and loose wisps of hair brushing their faces, this intense and excited new couple could be our friends, could be our parents, could be ourselves.

John Lennon # 1 by Susan Wood.
John Lennon # 1 by Susan Wood.

“This is Yoko in love,” notes Ms. Wood, examining one of the famous images. “Both of them – they look absolutely delighted with each other. Either that or they’re just so stoned they are thrilled with everything.”

Another remarkable set of photos was taken in Ms. Yoko’s hospital room. She had been placed under full-time care in order to save a precarious and threatened pregnancy (the baby, regrettably, was stillborn). These pictures are deeply intimate, dark yet radiant with the potential for new life and dim with the fear of losing it.

“She’s trying to stay quiet and calm and prevent the miscarriage,” notes Ms. Wood, eyeing the image on a computer screen. “In those days, to have a boyfriend in the hospital room staying overnight on his air mattress was unheard of. But he insisted. And he was so amazingly supportive of her.”

Ms. Wood also had a front-row seat at the creation of “Easy Rider,” one of the most important movies of the era. Not only was she hired to be the still photographer on the production, but she also played a fundamental role in getting the film made.

“They said ‘Oh, we’ve got a problem, [producer Bert] Schneider says he has the money and he’ll give us a check as soon as we have a storyboard.’ So I said ‘What’s the problem?’ And they explained it was just hard to get the story down on paper. So I said, ‘Look, why don’t you just talk to me about it, that may help.’ So they fumbled around and found a tape recorder and I said ‘Let’s tape this, we’ll see what we get.’ So they told me the story and I kept them on track. Then we played it back, it was terrific, it was beginning, middle, and done! And they said ‘Where we going to find someone to type this all up, it’s 8 o’clock?’ I said ‘Forget it. Just bring him the tape and play it for him – see if that doesn’t work.’ Dennis played the tape and came back with a check. So I was kind of lucky for them.”

Through Ms. Wood’s lens, New York City (and London, the Hamptons, and everywhere her camera is aimed) seems to be full of literature, love, sass, and scandal.

Right On! The Lennon Years: Photographs by Susan Wood 1968 – 1978 can be seen at the Mulford Farm Museum, 10 James Lane, East Hampton, from August 8 through October 18. The opening reception is Saturday, August 8 from 4 to 7 p.m.