Fifty years ago this week, hundreds of thousands of festivalgoers descended on a farm in Bethel, New York, for one of the defining episodes in American counterculture history: Woodstock.
An event marking its anniversary, Woodstock 50, may have been canceled, but a new book is offering an alternative way to relive the 1969 festival – by bringing to light more than 100 never-before-seen photographs.
The recently unearthed images were taken by photojournalist Richard F. Bellak, who died in 2015 having never published them. Artist and professor John Kane, who was researching the festival for a book, purchased the negatives at an auction of the late photographer’s estate.
Bellak was, according to Kane, one of just a handful of “professional-level” photographers to have captured the event. He appears to have overlooked the festival’s performers (which famously included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and The Who), and instead turned his lens on attendees.
As a result, his images show attendees hanging out, watching bands and preparing camps, while documenting the deterioration of the muddy site over the course of five days. Bellak also took a series of rare nighttime images, which were especially difficult to capture using cameras from the time.
“You can almost sense that Bellak is tiptoeing around these sleeping encampments,” Kane said in a phone interview. “He must not have got any sleep at all. Just the silence in those photos really speaks to you.”
For Kane, who was born the year after Woodstock, publishing the photos was not simply a matter of posterity. He spent time reading Bellak’s writings, and even met with one of his ex-girlfriends, to help better understand a photographer he describes as “somewhat of a private man.”
“It was important for me, if I was to do something with this collection, to know who this man was,” Kane explained. “I’m an artist myself and I needed to figure out what his voice was as an artist.”
Kane’s new book, “Pilgrims of Woodstock,” pairs Bellak’s photos with more than 30 of his own interviews with festivalgoers. While he was unable to track down individuals featured in the images, his interview process was still shaped by the late photojournalist’s work – in particular, the diversity captured at the festival.
“Woodstock is known to be a college-aged, white audience, but there are Hispanics and black people in (Bellak’s) photos,” Kane said. “Because he was living in New York at the time, he really had that focus, which sparked the idea to carry out a diverse selection of interviews.”
Kane spoke to former military personnel, conservative voices and members of ethnic minority and LGBT communities for the book, in addition to attendees more typically associated with Woodstock.
Together, they offer a range of outlooks he felt was missing from the Woodstock story.
And despite his subjects’ differences, Kane nonetheless found common threads tying their experiences together: “Whether it was a Vietnam vet, a journalist or whomever, people witnessed a unified collective of people who just became one. Everyone I spoke to was on some sort of journey – looking for a transformative experience in some way.
“And, for the most part, everyone I spoke to said they were transformed after Woodstock,” he added.
Whether the ill-fated Woodstock 50 – originally scheduled to begin Friday, before organizer pulled the plug amid a “series of unforeseen setbacks” – could have provided something similar for today’s youth will never be known. But while Kane believes it is “entirely impossible” to recreate Woodstock, the current generation is, he said, in need of its own “Woodstock-like experience.”
“There needs to be a venue for the current youth culture to be able to express itself in that way.”
“Pilgrims of Woodstock,” published by Red Lightning Books, is available now.