Doug’s Bugs Volkswagen Service Station, 1975, by Marion Post Wolcott. (Courtesy of Linda Wolcott Moore)
The counterculture era of the late 1960s and early 1970s is gradually fading into legend, buoyed by hazy memories and second-hand stories. To get a better sense of how utopian visions collide with reality on the ground, contemporary photographs created by a sympathetic yet insightful artist would be extremely helpful.
That’s exactly what the AD&A Museum at UC Santa Barbara is offering with its current exhibit, Isla Vista: Resistance and Progress by Marion Post Wolcott. It consists of 17 photos by the veteran photographer, an intermittent resident of Santa Barbara, that document aspects of life in the community adjacent to the university, circa 1974.
“Marion Post Wolcott’s photographs documenting Isla Vista in the 1970s speak to the pioneering spirit and counterculture of this unique student enclave,” said museum director Gabriel Ritter.
“Walking through the exhibit, one is reminded of the loud spirit and the eco-mindedness that was nurtured here in the past and remains alive today,” Ritter said.
Indeed, in her vivid photographs, Post Wolcott “brings out the bright, human side of the neighborhood in the mid-1970s,” said Silvia Perea, curator of the museum’s architecture and design collection. She notes that the images feature “peaceful protests, family fairs, organic restaurants, recycling fields, street markets,” but avoids darker elements of the era such as drug trafficking.
“While she identifies with the political will of Isla Vista, she is more drawn to the neighborhood’s accomplishments than its struggles,” Perea said.
Post Wolcott is best known for the many photos she took between 1938 and 1941 in the southern United States while working for the Farm Security Administration. Rather than focusing exclusively on Depression-era poverty, she “captured both sides of America’s socioeconomic spectrum, combining uplifting scenes of endurance with uncomfortable images of privilege,” said noted Perea.
After that project was completed, Post Wolcott took a nearly three-decade hiatus from professional photography, as she accompanied her diplomat husband on various postings around the world. They settled in Santa Barbara in the early 1970s, and during a visit to Isla Vista, she found inspiration to resume her work.
When she turned her lens to Isla Vista, Perea noted, she generally focused on “the details, rather than the scenic vistas – a hand-written vote sign; a group of musicians playing at an outdoor concert; a bearded, shirtless man with a young child on his shoulders.
Several of the photographs document Isla Vista’s recycling program – one of the first in the country – showing, among other things, huge plastic bags filled with collected cans.
“A few years earlier, in 1969, the oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel sparked widespread environmental action at local and national levels,” Perea said. “Post Wolcott’s photographs testify to the enduring social mobilization that followed the disaster. Handmade graphics in the recycling bins and fields emphasize that the green action in Isla Vista has been led by local residents’, as opposed to a government agency.
Stylistically, Perea sees more similarities than differences between these photos and the more well-known photos that Post Wolcott took during the Depression. “The FSA series is shot in black and white and challenges the ideals of democracy in a capitalist society, while Isla Vista is in color and praises the progress that comes from selfless human connections,” she noted. .
“However, the laid-back, artistic approach to his subjects remains consistent. Both series are also the product of Post Wolcott’s belief in the power of photography to spur socio-economic and political progress.
The photographs originally came from the collection of Post Wolcott’s daughter, Linda Wolcott Moore, who owned a San Francisco gallery specializing in photography. Like her mother, she also lived in Santa Barbara for a time, and when she left town she donated the photographs to the AD&A Museum.
A few of these were featured in a retrospective exhibition of Post Wolcott’s work at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1988, two years before the artist’s death. This is the first time the entire series has been exhibited.
“In my view, the Isla Vista series is, ultimately, a self-portrait of Post Wolcott,” Perea said. “In IV, she rediscovers the social values that she has defended since childhood, and that her work for the FSA in the 1930s and 1940s reflects.
“By immortalizing expressions of these values decades later, Post Wolcott defines who she is, not just as an artist, but also as a human being, while celebrating her newfound freedom to do so.”
“Isla Vista: Resistance and Progress” continues through May 1 at the AD&A Museum, 552 University Road. It is open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Free entry. For more information, call 805-893-2951 or visit museum.ucsb.edu.