Cover Story continued

Taylor Camp

The life and death of Taylor Camp
Taylor Camp / Taylor Camp,
John Wehrheim
Serindia Contemporary, 2009
258 pages, $65

Taylor Camp is a ripple in the water of our lives still reverberating with what we found there. It was a wild serendipity experience and we’re still here, 35 years later. It was a constant barrage of experience and none of it was TV. It was all real. — Cherry Hamilton, Taylor Camp resident.

John Wehrheim first photographed Taylor Camp in 1969 after being hired by the Sierra Club to write a series of articles titled Paradise Lost. His assignment soon ended, but Wehrheim never returned to North America.

Taylor Camp, a collection of striking black-and-white photographs and evocative first-person interviews, artfully documents a moment in Hawaii’s history, a sometimes soaring, sometimes heartbreaking odyssey in which a clothing-optional, pot-friendly nirvana becomes a crucible of environmental and civil rights struggles. While waiting for a supposed great awakening in American consciousness, Taylor Camp’s residents hung out on Kauai’s North Shore from 1969 until the devastating burning of the camp in 1977. Through photos, interviews, news clippings and maps, Wehrheim’s story reveals an experiment in benevolent lawlessness where a community of young people from across America tried to live by the unwritten and unrealized ideals of the 1960s.

In the spring of 1969, Howard Taylor, brother to actress Elizabeth, bailed 13 young hippies out of jail after learning of the State’s plan to condemn his recently purchased ocean front property. His impulsive yet compassionate decision led to a nearly 10-year battle between local Kauai residents and those living at Taylor Camp. Wehrheim illustrates the waves of hippies, surfers and troubled Vietnam vets who found refuge in the tree house villages by exposing the camp’s vulnerability, nakedness, innocence and allegorical intoxication.

Taylor Camp’s hippie ideals rejected consumerism and modernism and looked for resolution through the power of nature. While some considered this a front for free love, free sex and free living (many were living off of government food stamps, reselling their goods in a community co-op), the residents of the camp seemed to be searching for an idealistic way of life.

Wehrheim’s photographs expose shanty-like houses built among the trees, made from materials more often seen in third world countries–bamboo, scrap material, salvaged metal and wood. In a Never-Never Land clash of cultures, Wehrheim lays bare many of Taylor Camp’s contradictions–naked women nursing babies while stoned men play guitars and drums; stray cats in kitchens filled with jars of dried herbs and shelves filled with images of Krishna, Buddha, Christ, marijuana and coffee. Their youthful, anti-war illusions fill the pages as a breathing space between the engine of a plantation economy and a real estate bonanza.

The genius of Taylor Camp lies less in Wehrheim’s collection of artful photography or his adeptness in collecting a riveting oral-history than in his brilliant ability to capture a close-up glimpse of a fleeting moment, now distant, and never to return.

Wehrheim’s Taylor Camp screens at Hawaii Theatre, Sun 5/30, 2pm, $12 advance, $17 day of show. [hawaiitheatre.com], 528-0506