The following contribution is from Benjamin Klein, editor of Irwin Klein and the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico (June 2016). Benjamin Klein, Irwin’s nephew, teaches European and world history at California State University, East Bay. His articles on the counterculture have appeared in the New Mexico Historical Review and Casa Vogue.
When my late uncle Irwin Klein first came to El Rito, a Hispaño village located at the edge of Carson National Forest, in 1966, the “great hippie migration” to northern New Mexico was underway. Before the end of the decade hundreds of “dropouts, renegades, and utopians,” in Klein’s words, and the “children of the urban middle class” had made their way to the region. While some of these new arrivals settled in El Rito, Vallecitos, Dixon, and Taos, others went to live at New Buffalo, Magic Tortoise, Five Star, and other communes. Northern New Mexico figured prominently on the countercultural map. Wavy Gravy announced the establishment of the Hog Farm commune at Llaño from the stage at Woodstock in August 1969. Easy Rider (1969) introduced audiences to the burgeoning scene when the two protagonists, Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy the Kid (Dennis Hopper) visit an unnamed commune near Taos on their ill-fated journey across the United States. The cover story for Rolling Stone for July 9, 1970 proclaimed it the “Summer of New Mexico.”
Klein made several visits to the Southwest, spending a few months at a time, documenting the scene in Rio Arriba, Taos, and Mora counties, before returning to New York City where he lived. He went to northern New Mexico, as he put it, with much the same motives as the people [he] photographed.” Klein, however, never completely dropped out. One friend described him as more of “an observer and documenter” of the scene than active participant in the scene. Nevertheless, he has provided us with an enduring visual record of the counterculture in northern New Mexico, using his camera to record the daily activities of the new settlers as well as their rituals and celebrations. We can see this in the images of a young woman chopping wood in Mora and the wedding feast at New Buffalo.
His photos of the girl and adobe brick makers reflect the influence of Dorothy Lange, Walker Evans, and other photographers associated with the Farm Security Agency.
Klein’s images occupy a unique space between historical documentation and artistic photography. “I have proceeded slowly, rather than in a journalistic fashion,” he wrote, “and tried to enter into the time, space, and light which envelopes [sic] my subjects, basing my work, whenever possible on long-term acquaintances and participation.” “I never took pictures of people who weren’t conscious that I was there,” Klein once explained, “but the trick was to be invisible all the same.”
Klein selected eighty photographs, which he tried to publish along with an introduction. Unfortunately, he never found a publisher for “New Settlers of Northern New Mexico.” More than forty years after Klein’s death in Brooklyn in 1974, his photo essay will be published for the first time in its entirety.