11 Photographers That Captured the Voices of Counterculture

By Jelena Martinovic on March 20, 2018

Beats, teds, punks, hippies — there was a time when young people explicitly and unmistakably made it clear which pack they belonged to. Often defined by musical tastes, slang, fashion and questionable hairstyles, their shared culture was characterized by certain symbolic systems and processes. Examining these different worlds reveals a lot about the society from which they emerged.

Seeking to construct their own identities, each generation brings its own rebellions, and for this reason, the 20th century saw the rise and fall of many subcultures. Initially brought together as informal cliques of like-minded individuals, some subcultures developed into counterculture movements with relevant and lasting impacts.

For their remarkable richness and power, these cultures have served as an inspiration for many artists throughout history. Better than any other medium, photography managed to immortalize these moments when entire generations turned away from widely accepted norms to embrace revolutionary attitudes and ideologies. The social ambiguities of life in post-war Japan, the allure of the outlaw life, the urge for freedom in America, the rage in the dark alleys of London…. all of them are now part of a vital visual legacy and archive, as a result of a work of the few dedicated image-makers.

Bruce Davidson
In a career spanning more than half a century, Bruce Davidson has produced an emotionally charged body of work that often conveys the loneliness and isolation of his subjects. In his early work, he was typically drawn to subjects who were alienated from society, including a teenage Brooklyn gang called The Jokers. After initiating contact with the group in 1959, the 25-year-old-photographer embarked on an emotional journey with them to create a moving portrait of postwar inner-city youth culture. Following them on their endless wanderings for several months, he witnessed their fear, depression and anger, immersing himself in their pain on the way. Cool and evocative, Davidson’s images show his subjects both tough and innocent, capturing the raw edges and vulnerability of their teenage years. Portraying The Jokers with sensitivity and sympathy, his photo book Brooklyn Gang stands as one of the first in-depth photographic records of the youth rebellion.

Karlheinz Weinberger
Though he worked most of his life in mild-mannered obscurity as a warehouse packer in a Zurich factory, Karlheinz Weinberger moonlighted as a photographer, capturing bold photos of rebel youth in 1950s and '60s Switzerland. He created lasting portraits of a distinctively style-conscious group called Halbstarken. These disenchanted working-class teenagers and self-named rebels in post-war Switzerland were perhaps the country’s first true subculture. Fascinated by the unique way they expressed their identity through self-branded DIY clothing, Weinberger created vibrant, free-spirited and self-confident portraits in an honest interaction that perfectly captured their defiant attitude. Over time, he transitioned into documenting the Swiss chapter of the Hells Angels. Embarking on a longtime study of their lifestyle, he produced a rich and fascinating body of work that displays individuality, independence and fearlessness as a complex expression of social identity.

Danny Lyon
Danny Lyon was a radical storyteller. By completely immersing himself in the lives of his subjects, he developed a restless, compassionate vision that marked his oeuvre. Way before there was Easy Rider, he went on the road with the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club he joined in the 1960s, providing an iconic and seminal glimpse into outlaw life. Describing the bikers as “probably the only thing like cowboys left in America,” he set off to record and glorify their rough and libertine lifestyle, at the same time manifesting a personal fantasy of rebellious freedom. Riding and living with them for five years, Lyon created an authentic, personal and uncompromising body of work that captured the dawn of the counterculture era. Accompanying the images with interviews and personal statements of his subjects in his seminal book The Bikeriders, he created a more refined collective portrait of the American biker archetype.

Chris Steele-Perkins
In his early working days, Chris Steele-Perkins shot only in black and white and worked almost exclusively in England. In the 1970s, he set out to capture a second revival of the uniquely British youth culture of the Teds. First emerging in the 1950s, Teds were working class youngsters adopting the formal and flamboyant tailoring of Edwardian dress and were known for jive dancing and brawling. Working between 1976 and 1979, Steele-Perkins documented the phenomenon of Ted subculture across the country, revealing how this second wave was more than just a way of dressing but a lifestyle. In his striking monochrome photography, he captured the way youths behaved, socialized, interacted with and even romanced each other in the environs of the dance hall, the pub, the suburban home, car parks and seaside promenades. His vivid and absorbing photo book The Teds stands as a testament to the Britishness of this enduring subculture.

Mitsutoshi Hanaga
A prolific yet little-known photographer, Mitsutoshi Hanaga covered fascinating aspects of the post-war counterculture scene in Japan. Living and working in a time when the country experienced a drastic transition and was burdened with a variety of social issues, Hanaga was particularly drawn to an underground scene, which he actively engaged in. Focusing on struggling youths seeking their meaning, he captured stories that unfolded below the visible surface of a society, creating a who’s who archive of the 1960s, '70s and '80s Japanese counterculture and experimental art. His lens captured everything from the commune and campus movements, street protests and rallies by New Left groups to avant-garde art, underground theater and burgeoning Butoh movement, dissecting and unraveling counterculture in terms of social and artistic strains. For his cutting-edge, vivid and candid oeuvre, he is legendarily remembered as “an artist behind a system.”

Lisa Law
For more than five decades, Lisa Law has been capturing the shifting tides of American culture and society. Intimate and spontaneous, her images from the turbulent 1960s evoke the pursuits of the counterculture era in America, from rock music, commune life, psychedelics, sexual freedom and nonconformity to campus demonstrations and Vietnam war protests. She has lived, witnessed and recorded these moments on the frontier of cultural change. Hanging out with musicians such as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Velvet Underground, living in the communes of New Mexico, helping feed hundreds of thousands at Woodstock with the Hog Farm Commune, she was there for it all, chronicling a cultural revolution with her lens. Capturing the heart of the Flower Power era, she produced a body of work characterized by great depth, beauty and impact.

Irwin Klein
The work of Irwin Klein spanned only a very short period of time, between 1962 until his early death in 1974. However, the photographer produced a compelling body of work during that truncated period that generated much public acclaim. He is most famous for his series that captured the lives of the settlers in New Mexico in the 1960s, offering a stunning glimpse into the ideals of American counterculture. Klein documented what he described as dropouts, renegades and utopians who were living alone, as couples, in families or groups in rural towns in Taos, Rio Arriba and Mora counties. They were children of the urban middle class and old beatniks who sought an alternative to the consumerism of middle-class America, embracing an agrarian life that existed beyond the simplistic hippie notions of freedom. Through the sympathetic and candid treatment of his subjects, Klein captured their optimism and determination with which they faced the realities of settler life.

Derek Ridgers
Known for his bold and honest approach, the photographer Derek Ridgers gave unprecedented insight into the subcultures that defined London’s alternative club scene across the '70s and '80s. Already engaged in a lengthy photographic study of New Romantics, Ridgers encountered a group of Skinheads in 1979 in Soho, London who invited him to photograph them. After taking a few shots, the photographer was invited to join the gang on one of its Bank Holiday jaunts to the seaside. This led to a five-year-long project that allowed him to observe this world from the inside and document the controversial youth cult of the early Thatcher years. Published in the photo book Skinheads 1979-1984, his images captured attitudes that range from benign to mean, creating a testimony that crackles with life and energy.

Wolfgang Tillman
A frequent visitor of the early 1990s underground techno and rave scenes in London and Berlin, Wolfgang Tillmans always traveled with his camera, creating a document of a turbulent time. His love of street and club culture, of techno music, his support for the peace movements and his involvement in gay rights situated him at the very epicenter of this culture. Someone who has always drawn on his own life and experience as a subject, Tillmans captured this emerging recession-led subculture in all its honesty and innocence. His often explicit and raw snapshot-like photographs show grimy warehouses with clusters of partygoers hanging out outside, close-ups of dancing and kissing party kids, completely embodying the freedom within club culture. He often took photos of his friends in intimate situations, depicting them as tough, vulnerable, loving, ferocious, gay and straight. Seemingly casual but often meticulously choreographed, these images recorded a specific dimension of our contemporary culture.

Mike Brodie
At age 17, Mike Brodie embarked on a trip across the United States. Two years later, he was given a camera and took up photography for the first time. Over the next four years, Brodie hopped trains across the country, documenting a fascinating gritty teenage subculture. Describing his photographs as “travel culture,” he captured the lives of squatters, hobos, train-hoppers and those who were running away or were just out seeking true adventure. Saturated with color and often set against moving backgrounds, his photographs capture the realities of this life in raw detail, at the same time embodying a natural harmony of freedom, spirit and adventure. He published his work in the photo books A Period of Juvenile Prosperity and Tones of Dirt and Bone. Although he abandoned photography as a medium since, he has created a worthy document of a distinct group in time, leaving an enduring impact on the photo world.

Steve Schapiro
An acclaimed American photographer and photojournalist, Steve Schapiro captured some of the most important developments in history, including the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene in San Francisco in the 1960s. At age 80, he traveled the country with his son to events such as the Rainbow Gathering, Electric Forest and Burning Man, discovering a modern-day subculture of neo-hippies. Describing them as “Bliss Ninnies,” Schapiro learned that, as opposed to the psychedelic pursuits of their 1960s predecessors, they were more interested in meditating and healthy living. Following them in and out of transformational festivals between 2012 and 2014, Schapiro realized that, for many of the people involved, it was a way of life. Taking a documentary approach, Schapiro published his photographs in the book Bliss: An Exploration of the Current Hippie Counterculture & Transformational Festivals, providing a unique insight into a new contemporary hippie life within America.

GET Irwin Klein and the New Settlers: Photographs of Counterculture in New Mexico

GET Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders

GET Martin Parr’s The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton

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