These Photos Take You On An Acid Trip Through The '60s To '90s
Roger Steffens' life is the stuff movies and books are made of, which makes us think that truth is really stranger than fiction. From dropping acid with Hunter S. Thompson to going on tour with Bob Marley and helping refugees out in Saigon during the Vietnam War, Steffens has documented his fascinating life in the form of photographs.
Steffens, now 72 and living in Los Angeles, recently released a book of his snapshots from the 1960s to 1990s titled, The Family Acid. The name of the book is a riff on how many of Steffens' psychedelic and dreamlike photos—many of them double exposures—were taken while he was tripping on acid. And his family, which includes his wife Mary, and children Kate and Devon, consider themselves loving and harmonious like the the family from TV show The Waltons, but with psychedelic drugs in the mix.
He first got his start in photography when he was drafted to serve the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. Steffens arrived in Saigon just before the Tet Offensive and spent 26 months out there. He was first sent to the Psychological Operations department—something he describes as propaganda warfare—where he had to carry 80 pound loudspeakers in backpacks during combat operations. After Army officials learned that Steffens was well-educated and could type, he was transferred to another department to become the typist for a colonel. However, that all changed when the Tet Offensive destroyed half the city, with 52 families living in sewer pipes in front of his place. Officials reassigned him and put him in charge of a civil action section, where he would spend his time raising over a 100 tons worth of food and clothing from the U.S. to send to refugees in Vietnam. The colonel saw this as a great way to spin his own image into something positive. He told Steffens that he could work on any project he wanted as long as he photographed everything, documenting the work so he could take credit for it. Steffens was fine with that, and with that he became a photographer.
"I realized being sent to Vietnam—the most important event of my generation—was an opportunity to document history," he says. "So, I shot over 10,000 frames in Vietnam."
Steffens found that the most interesting events to photograph included the Tet Offensive. The first picture in his book is of a helicopter gunship flying over his head firing 5,000 bullets. He says every fifth bullet had a red tracer firing directly at the ground, which cast a hazy red glow.
He got an early out from the Army and returned to the U.S. Steffens moved around the country and would even spend some time living in Marrakesh, Morocco. He eventually landed in Milwaukee, where he dropped acid for the first time. Prior to this, he was straight-laced and never even thought about touching drugs—not even smoke a joint. At that time, Steffens says LSD wasn't illegal and LIFE magazine was doing 20-page spreads on it, so he thought it was fine. In the summer of 1966, he began hanging with poet Bob Watts. When he would go over to Watts' place, he and his friends would have a pound of LSD on the table that looked like a mound of confectioner's sugar. While they were filling gel caps by hand, they were getting high because the acid was absorbing in their skin.
"These guys were tripping for six to seven days and they were having a lot of fun, and I didn't see any bad effects," Steffens says. "They convinced me to try it."
He and Watts both swore they saw Vietnamese peasants planting rice in Lake Michigan that morning. "It was a really wonderful trip," Steffens says, laughing.
His adventures would continue in 1973 when he moved into a Berkeley apartment with roommate, photographer Tim Page, who was the inspiration behind the journalist Dennis Hopper played in Apocalypse Now. He credits Page for teaching him a great deal about photography.
"[Page] was the most wounded Vietnam correspondent who survived," he says. "He was blown up four times, and the last time he had the right third of his brain blown out the back of his head. And he survived that and he's still alive."
They would hang out with Rolling Stone editors and writers. Hunter S. Thompson used to come over to their apartment and drop acid with them. One time, Thompson brought over sheets of blotter acid with former President Richard Nixon's face printed on them. But Steffens says while laughing, "I couldn't bring myself to do that one."
Steffens would eventually experiment with taking double exposures on film. He was inspired in part by Page telling him stories about the most beautiful photographs he had seen—and those were from Page's roommate in Vietnam, Sean Flynn. Flynn was an actor and photojournalist, and the son of Hollywood great Errol Flynn who went missing during the Cambodian invasion. It was believed he was held captive by the Khmer Rouge and killed off. His body was never found. Before he disappeared, Flynn had gone to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and shot a roll of film of the temple's ruins, and put the same roll of film back in his camera and shot close-ups of butterflies in Angkor Wat over the ruins.
Steffens would get his first taste of shooting his own double-exposures in a serendipitous moment. His buddies, Ron Kovic—the paralyzed Vietnam War veteran Tom Cruise played in Born On The Fourth Of July —and Richard Boyle—the man James Woods portrayed in Salvador—had gone together to Vietnam and Cambodia when both countries fell and shot photographs to document it. When they returned, Kovic joined Steffens while he was on a lecture tour, and Kovic's roll of film he had shot in Cambodia ended up in Steffens' camera bag. The film wasn't rolled up all the way, and one day when Steffens went to shoot some photos by the Ohio River, he grabbed that roll and used it. His snapshots of beautiful stained glass from an antebellum mansion he shot ended up double-exposed with Kovic's photos of Cambodia.
"I thought, 'My God, if I can figure out a way to do this kind of stuff on purpose that could be really cool,'" Steffens says.
The Family Acid came about when Steffens hired his son, Devon, to digitize 40,000 slides he had taken over the last few decades. When his daughter, Kate, saw the photos, she told her father that she had discovered stuff she had never seen before, and created an Instagram page to share the snapshots. They eventually launched their book featuring Steffens' photos and descriptions about his different adventures, which can be bought here.
Steffens has been living in Los Angeles for the past 40 years. Besides being a photographer, he's also appeared in several films and TV shows and was the host of KCRW's Reggae Beat show in 1979, with Bob Marley as his first guest. He's traveled the world lecturing on reggae music, and is known for his extensive collection of Marley and reggae memorabilia and archives.
"It's been an utterly unpredictable life," Steffens says.