William Haigwood's Use of Tarot Symbolism Attempts to Convey '60s Spirit

Bill Haigwood/Courtesy

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Entering the exhibit opening of 1960s photographs at Berkeley Art House Gallery felt like walking into the peace and love decade represented in the images. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits provided an appropriate afternoon soundtrack as a smattering of tie-dye clad hippie veterans reminisced and perused William Cook Haigwood's black and white photos of the era's influential figures, plentiful protests and free-love emissaries.

Haigwood's photojournalism career began in the 1960s while attending UC Berkeley and working for the now-defunct Berkeley Daily Gazette. After rediscovering thousands of forgotten photographs in a box, Haigwood chose 78 pictures of the zeitgeist's crucial touchpoints: sexual revolution, feminism, civil rights, as well as social, economic and intellectual principles of the Counterculture.

As a photojournalist, historian and participant in the movement, Haigwood's current exhibit, "Journeying the Sixties: A Counterculture Tarot," aims to trace the trajectory of the revolutionary epoch through a symbolic vehicle. The Tarot deck-a medium of divination and interpretation of experience-contains cards with 500-year-old images of archetypal figures and esoteric symbols. William Haigwood claims that Tarot's popularity in the '60s provided the ideal template for telling a new story about the controversial period.

Selected photos are linked by aesthetic or thematic similarity to key Tarot cards. For each image, the photographer offers lengthy explanatory essays discussing connections between the photograph and the card's traditional meaning. Haigwood's invocation of the Tarot deck to re-interpret the '60s detracts from the impact the powerful images could have on their own.

In Tarot, The Fool embodies the chaos from which everything emerges: In "Counterculture Tarot", a face-paint obscured war protestor on Berkeley's streets represents the Fool and myriad activists. The Magician has tricks to cope with and create something from the chaos: In the card's essay, Haigwood exalts Timothy Leary as The Magician who gave the "gift" of LSD and "offered a primary experience outside the self, masked as a thrill but with the presumed power to germinate spiritual individuation."

Haigwood idealizes each photograph and fits the figures into a sentimental mapping of the decade, giving a cartoonish aura to serious issues. Photos of civil rights activists and war protestors being assaulted by police are formidable reminders of forgotten violence in the decade of peace and love; yet when forced into the Tarot deck, the poignancy of the images is largely lost.

The photographer acknowledges the shortcomings of the Counterculture, stating, "Certainly the decade did not result in politically progressive change across the world". Yet his assertion that the added element of Tarot awakens a new view of the '60s may only be true for those looking to the past with nostalgia. Instead of illuminating the already compelling vintage photos with greater import, Haigwood's incorporation of mythology merely trivializes any authentic 1960s activism.

The photographs in "Journeying the Sixties" are evocative representations of the Counterculture campaign's zenith. While Haigwood is aware of the movement's failures, the Tarot motif compromises his intention to reinterpret history: Rather than impart a fresh narrative of the period, the exhibit reads as a romanticization of youthful idealism and oozes sentimentality for unrealized goals.

Swing back to the '60s with Jennafer at [email protected]

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