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A Generation Caught on Camera

A new documentary chronicles half a century of iconic photography by Vineyard Haven’s Peter Simon

Growing up a Simon, Peter was drawn to music and spotlights. His oldest sister Joanna was an opera singer, sister Lucy has composed music for Broadway shows like The Secret Garden, and then there’s that other Simon sister, Carly—maybe you’ve heard of her. Privilege perhaps, but how to stand out in such a family? “I had these three beautiful sisters, a charismatic mother, a father who died when I was a pre-teenager, and I didn’t know who I was,” Simon says. “Photography gave me a sense of purpose.”

Peter’s talent was quickly recognized. At 15, his photos were published in the widely read magazine Popular Photography. While studying photojournalism at Boston University, his concert close-ups landed him a job photographing for the Cambridge Phoenix (later the Boston Phoenix). An editorial comment in a 1969 issue of the Phoenix summed up his growing reputation: “A lot of people have been telling us that Peter Simon is a genius. We know.”

At the suggestion of a Phoenix writer, Peter sent his photos to Rolling Stone, and at age 22, he received his first freelance assignment for the magazine. Other freelance work took him to the Haight-Ashbury district, to anti-war protests, and to Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. Absorbed in the idealism and high on the counter-culture—and sometimes its by-products—he captured it all on 35-millimeter film. “It was a very exciting time, and it became my palette of creativity,” he recalls.

But a photographer’s palette needs more than colorful characters. Even the pros struggle to find the defining moment, the perfect shot, but Simon’s work makes it look easy: He seems to have a gift for framing key moments with artful composition. Simon’s celebrity photos typically feature a star onstage before huge audiences, somehow caught in a candid moment of concern or vulnerability. And in his posed portraits, Simon’s genius lies in his own shy, easygoing manner that brings out the best in people. “Peter’s a very touchy-feely guy and he gets people to express themselves that way,” says Ronni Simon, Peter’s wife of 35 years and an artist whose intricate jewelry is featured in the Simon Gallery.

In 1970, Peter followed the call of the back-to-the-land movement. Putting his career on hold, he spent two years milking cows, planting vegetables, and photographing the long hair, flowing dresses, and loving hours on Tree Frog Farm, a commune and subsistence farm he co-founded outside Brattleboro, Vermont. But the eventual disintegration of the farm sent Peter in search of the next step.

Leaving Vermont, Peter bought a small house on Martha’s Vineyard where, like many a Boomer, he began recovering from the 1960s. Over the next decade, he found new interests. A love of reggae sent him to Jamaica where he photographed Marley and other Rastafarians for his book Reggae Bloodlines. He became a disciple of the guru Ram Dass, who ultimately married Peter and Ronni. He resumed his concert photography career, touring with The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin and shooting the 1979 No Nukes concerts in Manhattan.

But rock music was losing its intimacy. Writing in his journal in 1984, Peter lamented, “The passion is gone. Artists are in it for the money and the glory…where is the voice of conviction?”

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