Like song lyrics, graphic ephemera have the power to refresh memories and transport us to another time and place. The feeling is impossible to ignore when perusing the archive of Paul Prince. A retired graphic designer and exhibition designer, Prince started collecting psychedelic ephemera during the summer of 1967 while a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and frequenter of dance concerts in the surrounding area.
These dance concerts, bolstered by rock music, light shows, and mind-altering drugs, summoned the crowds during the summer of ’67 when thousands of “flower children” converged on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to revel in rebellion against The Establishment. The so-called Summer of Love promised a communal environment founded on the values of love and peace, or as it was portrayed in the media at the time, free love, free drugs, free food.
To advertise these euphoric happenings, which took place primarily at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom, event promoters Bill Graham and Chet Helms commissioned local artists to design handbills and posters. The original poster artists, known as the Big Five—Wes Wilson, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin—unwittingly launched a new design genre, the psychedelic rock poster, which proved as revolutionary as the counterculture movement itself.
Unlike the traditional “boxing style” posters, so-named because they looked like posters advertising boxing matches that were printed on the cheap, Prince said the psychedelic posters “made perfect sense. They looked like the music sounded and I thought that was brilliant.” They also captured the sensation of spontaneous free-form dancing and the elaborate multimedia shows that saturated the dance halls. “There were slide projectors, film projectors, movies running backwards, lights flashing in sync with the pulsing music. It was other-worldly, fluid and extremely harmonious, my idea of being in church.” A church oft-run high on acid.
Now fifty years later, Prince’s collection of handbills, tickets, and posters (many of them first printings) has soared to several thousand pieces. To complement the graphic ephemera, he also amassed a huge collection of 12-inch vinyl records (first pressings in mono, which remain sealed) of all the emerging bands that headlined the live dance concerts and left their mark on music history. “It’s obsessive,” admits Prince. Although it’s a private collection, he’s loaned posters to numerous exhibitions, including “High Societies” in 2001 at the San Diego Museum of Art, which published 111 of Prince’s posters in the exhibition catalog. He continues to collect, study, buy, trade, upgrade, and preserve—activities that surround any serious collecting. “The important thing is to collect things that mean something to you, learn about what it is you’re collecting, and try to get the best examples.”
In the exhibition catalog, High Societies: Psychedelic Rock Posters of Haight-Ashbury, Prince recalls that his organizing principle behind collecting psychedelic posters was from the very beginning “to bring together fresh, exciting designs and the vivid memories they evoke from an all-too-brief period of innocence, exploration, joyous wonder, and—despite reports from individuals who may not have experienced it—love.” This selection of “bests” from Prince’s collection bookend the Summer of Love.