One afternoon a little more than 50 years ago, the photographer Michael Cooper wandered into the bar at the Chateau Marmont in LA and happened to run into a friend, the writer Terry Southern. Southern had time for just one drink, and then he had to get to the airport. He had an assignment from Esquire to cover the National Democratic Convention in Chicago. Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs were covering it too—their editor, Harold Hayes, had a feeling that the event might be better understood by absurdists rather than political hacks—and they’d planned to meet up with Allen Ginsberg.
Cooper had a sense, both in his life and in his photos, where the energy was, where, as they said then, it was happening. That was why, a few years earlier, he’d quit his job as a fashion photographer. He was tired of people telling him where to shoot and what to shoot and how many rolls he could shoot. Instead he started hanging out with artists and designers and rock musicians: Swinging London, not British Vogue, was where it was happening. (And then Cooper shot the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, so, yes, he did have a point, although he never got paid.) Now, in the last week of August 1968, the most happening place in America was Chicago, a city where he’d never been. He was broke, but somehow he scraped up the money for a plane ticket and was there the next day. He had shoulder-length hair and wore a purple suit with sandals, and at first the security guards wouldn’t let him into the convention hall.
For the next four days, Southern, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Genet, sometimes accompanied by their Esquire editor, John Berendt, and Grove Press publisher Richard Seaver, marched through Grant and Lincoln Parks and sat in the old International Amphitheatre, on South Halsted, where the Democrats ended up nominating Hubert Humphrey for president, and on the sidewalk of Michigan Avenue, where young people were protesting the war in Vietnam and nervously eyeing the Chicago police, who were armed with nightsticks, and the national guardsmen, who were armed with rifles. In Cooper’s photos, there’s a sense of wariness and tension, like everybody’s just waiting for the veneer of calm to snap. Or maybe I just think that because I know what happened next, the part that Cooper saw but didn’t shoot, but which Southern wrote about in an article called “Grooving in Chi” that was published in Esquire that November.
“Advancing in the distance, silhouetted against the wall of light, moved this incredible phalanx of strangely helmeted men, swinging their nightsticks as they came [through Lincoln Park]. Once it was decided that we should leave, we moved with unfaltering gait—odd how infectious panic can be. Near the street, I glanced back in time to see them reach the place where we had been, and where a dozen or more [protesters] were still sitting. They didn’t arrest them—at least not right away; they beat the hell out of them—with night-sticks, and in one case at least, the butt of a shotgun. They clubbed them until they got up and ran, or until they started crawling away (the ones who were able), and then they continued to hit them as long as they could. The ones who actually did get arrested seemed to have gotten caught up among the police, like a kind of human medicine ball, being shoved and knocked back and forth from one cop to the next, with what was obviously mounting fury. And this was a phenomenon somewhat unexpected, which we were to observe consistently throughout the days of violence—that rage seemed to engender rage; the bloodier and the more brutal the cops were, the more their fury increased . . . ”
Michael Cooper: Chicago 1968
9/14-10/7: Reception Fri 9/14 7-9 PM and Sat 2-6 PM, otherwise by appointment, Land and Sea Department, 3124 W. Carroll, landandseadept.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, free.
Now Cooper’s photos and Southern’s article have been published together (along with some supplemental material) in a new book, Chicago 1968: The Whole World Is Watching, edited by Cooper’s son, Adam, and Southern’s son, Nile, and published by Hat & Beard Press, an LA-based outfit run by former Chicagoan and Stop Smiling publisher J.C. Gabel. An accompanying exhibit of 21 photographs opens Friday at Land & Sea Department in East Garfield Park, curated by Adam Cooper, with contextual quotes selected by Nile Southern and a soundtrack assembled by Gabel, designed to immerse viewers in Michael Cooper’s vision of Chicago during that week 50 years ago. (You can order the book here. Gabel intends this to be the first in a series of books and traveling exhibitions incorporating archival material from Chicago and other parts of the midwest.)
It wasn’t that Cooper was unaware of the brutality that eventually erupted. Back at their hotel, he and Southern watched the battle between the cops and the protesters in Grant Park on TV. “He was physically brought to tears when he saw the way they treated Abbie Hoffman and the violence,” says Adam Cooper. “He was a Brit, he’d never witnessed anything like this before. It was so shocking to him to witness this that he felt compelled to document it, but what fascinates me about the imagery is, there isn’t shots of all-out violence. It’s approached in a different manner. We still feel the conflict, but at the same time it’s not in such a way that you have to see blood, gassing, to know what’s going on. The beauty of the images, for me, is the way he walked away from the obvious and went the other way.”
Southern was older than Cooper—he was 44 in 1968, while Cooper was just 27—and an American who had seen the earlier horrors of that spring and summer: the assassination of Martin Luther King, the riots that followed, and the assassination, less than two months later, of Bobby Kennedy, who had seemed poised to win the Democratic presidential nomination. He took a less impressionistic approach to documenting the scene in Chicago. He embraced the horrible absurdity of a mayor trying to promote law and order by starting a domestic war. “Terry was a satirist,” says Nile Southern, “a satirist looking for the extremes of reality: Is this really true, can this really be happening?”
In one scene in Southern’s story, he and his companions, running from the police and tear gas, take refuge in the vestibule of an apartment building near Lincoln Park.
“We were all huddled in this small hallway, just as one wave of police swept past, wiping out everyone in its path. Now we had to crouch so as not to be seen through the glass front of the door, because from the other direction they were rushing into the doorways and halls and routing them out. We could hear it happening next door in no uncertain terms. And then it was our turn and, sure enough, in charged four of the finest, with expressions of rage such as I have never seen. In fact, Genet later jestingly insisted that they had not been cops at all but actors who were overplaying their roles.
“‘You Communist bastards!’ one of them snarled, ‘get the hell outta here! Now move!’ And he raised his club at the nearest person, who as it happened was Genet—but the latter, saint that he is, simply looked at the man and shrugged, half lifting his arms in a Gallic gesture of helplessness. And the blow didn’t come. Another tribute to Genet’s strange power over people. Instead, they pushed and prodded us out onto the street where they talked about taking us to the station; but they were soon distracted by activity farther down the block, and they rushed away. Because it wasn’t really us they wanted to get—it was the children.”
It’s no longer a very fresh or profound observation that the unrest of 2018 has a great deal in common with the unrest of 1968. But it’s still an excellent subject for conversation. Last week, the morning after an anonymous White House official published an op-ed in the New York Times that claimed that many inside the administration know that Donald Trump is unfit for office and are working behind the scenes to protect the nation by thwarting his “reckless decisions” and “worst inclinations,” I talked with Adam Cooper, Nile Southern, and Gabel over Skype. (We were in four different time zones, and Cooper was in an entirely different country. “This is not 60s at all,” Southern observed drily.) Gabel was trying to explain the significance of the op-ed to Cooper, who lives in Buenos Aires, and Cooper was trying to explain why the rest of the world still cares about what happens in America.
“Every four years all eyes turn to America,” he said. “They set the standard and set the example of what the future is likely to hold, what the future is like for the rest of the world. I’m stunned the way Trump got in the way he did. It’s complete chaos as far as I’m witnessing.”
Southern, who joined the conversation later because of technical difficulties, argued that the chaos of 1968 is different from the chaos of the present. “It’s such a fractured time now,” he said. “If I would envy anything from 1968 and the protesters who got their heads bashed in, it’s their single unified purpose. They wanted to make a statement.”
The two editors and their publisher have been thinking about 1968 a lot all summer, since they decided to put the book together. Southern and Cooper have wanted to do a project based on their fathers’ work for a long time. They’d met through the photographer Andee Nathanson, who had been friends with both Terry and Michael. Southern is a filmmaker and a writer who has published a book about Terry’s 1964 novel Candy and maintains a website devoted to his work, terrysouthern.com.
Adam, who’s also a filmmaker, inherited a collection of 70,000 of his father’s photos—”If Michael were still around today, in a digital world with an unlimited number of photos, it would probably be into the millions”—and has an almost mystical relationship with them. He likes to look through them late at night, when he won’t be disturbed by the phone, and although he’s been going over them with a light box and a magnifier since he was 18 years old (he’s now in his late 50s), he still regularly discovers new images or details. “I say to my wife, ‘Michael plays games with me. He holds things back: like he’s saying, “It’s not the right time for that thing yet.” And then boom, there it is, staring at me right in the face.'” Michael sold some of his Chicago photos to newspapers and magazines when he got home to London, but there were still many that had never been published.
Cooper also met Gabel through Nathanson. Gabel has known Southern for more than 20 years, going back to when Southern began contributing to Stop Smiling. Earlier this year, Gabel noticed there wasn’t going to be much going on in Chicago to commemorate the 1968 convention—if “commemorate” is the right word. Abe Peck, then the editor of the underground newspaper Chicago Seed, now a professor emeritus at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, organized a summerlong series of discussions with journalists, activists, and historians about the long-term effects of the convention on the media. (Peck wrote the introduction to Chicago 1968.) But there have been no museum or gallery exhibitions or other public events. This seemed strange to Gabel, but also like an opportunity. He, Cooper, and Southern have been working on the book and exhibition since June, narrowing Cooper’s original selection of photos down from 100 to 21. After the exhibition leaves Chicago, it will travel to LA, San Francisco, and New York. Both editors and publisher are pleased with the result. They’re also pleased they’ll have a chance to remind the public both of the horrors that surrounded that convention and the genius of Michael Cooper.
Neither Nile Southern nor Adam Cooper has many strong firsthand memories of 1968. Southern was only seven years old. He watched the coverage of Chicago on TV with his mother. He remembers black-and-white images of smoke and chaos and the look on his mother’s face when she told him his father was in the middle of it. Now he wonders if it was Genet’s apparent innocence—he didn’t speak any English and looked, at least in Cooper’s photos, like a genial old man—that helped protect Terry and his companions and got them out of Chicago uninjured.
After the convention ended, Southern and Cooper left Chicago and went their separate ways. That week was one more episode in a friendship that was based, in part, on a shared fascination with what was new and interesting—what was happening. (They were both drawn to the novel A Clockwork Orange for the way it created a new language to address the violence in contemporary culture and collaborated on a screen adaptation that was never produced, says Nile Southern; the film was eventually made by Stanley Kubrick, with whom Terry had cowritten the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove in 1964.)
But Nile Southern also suspects that afterward, Cooper was never quite the same. “One can only imagine how any ‘fragile, eggshell mind,’ no less Michael’s gentle soul, experienced that extreme brutality and intolerance on display that August,” he writes in the afterword of Chicago 1968.
In 1973, Michael Cooper committed suicide. In a letter to Adam, he wrote, “Don’t believe the court when they say that I killed myself when the balance of my mind was disturbed. I just live in a disturbed world, and, as the old poem says, ‘I hear the sound of a different drum.’ . . . I come from what your generation will call the ‘Half and Halves.’ A generation that made a few changes, but had to experience too many other kinds of changes they had no control over, so some of us were bound to fall by the wayside. I’m one of those.” v