Note: Some photographs featured in the slideshow above depict John Wehrheim’s subjects in the nude.
Imagine a mystical path that leads into a hidden valley, where you can watch as the sun melts into the sea. This is a place where both tranquility and splendor prevail, offering a space to replenish the human spirit.
The year was 1969. It was Spring. It was also the year 13 poor, homeless hippies, along with their kids, were arrested for vagrancy, only to later be bailed out by Howard Taylor, brother of actress Elizabeth Taylor. That’s when he invited them to live on his undeveloped, beachfront property. Frustrated and conflicted about the local government not allowing him to build anything on the land he owned, Taylor figured he’d just let them inhabit the area that had been condemned. “It’s your land and they’re now your hippies,” he told officials.
Their refuge? It was called Taylor Camp, and was located on the picturesque North Shore of Kauai.
Before long, dozens of families, Vietnam war veterans, surfers, and those just looking to distance themselves from American society (hence the term counterculture) ventured there to escape. Some called it “The End of the Road” or the “Wild Wild West,” and it truly was. Taylor Camp flourished as a self-governing alternative lifestyle community, where there were no written rules or rent to pay. Wild parties were thrown, clothing was optional, people made love, babies were born, marijuana was grown and smoked, and psychedelic drugs were taken as part of the collective experience.
The residents built multi-level tree houses constructed from scrap lumber, bamboo, and mosquito netting. The Church of the Brotherhood of the Paradise Children held services. Communal toilets, showers, and community gardens that grew fruits and vegetables were assembled.
At its pinnacle, there were about 120 people living on the seven-acre property.
Then, in 1977, Taylor Camp was engulfed in flames. This came eight years after living rent-free on what is arguably the most beautiful stretch of beach and forest in the world. The fires were started by Kauai’s state officials and county police in order to force residents out so they could make room for Ha’ena State Park.
Taylor Camp disappeared just as quickly as it was established, “leaving little but ashes and memories of the best days of our lives” behind, John Wehrheim writes. “We were young and we were free because we possessed little but youth–and no student loan debt!”
Wehrheim began photographing the camp when he moved to the island in 1971. However, it wasn’t until after he returned from documenting Tibetan refugees in Asia in 1975 that he really started taking the images he captured seriously.
“I thought it was a fantastic subject and felt compelled to record it in archival black and white for history,” Wehrheim said.
For the most part, Wehrheim is interested in aesthetics. He believes that a historically mesmerizing subject adds to that principle of exquisiteness, though it must be “well lit, properly composed and have surfaces and texture with continuous tones.” He is always asking himself, “Will this hang on a gallery wall? In 100 years will people be interested in these images? Will the subject, the details, be valuable and inform future generations?”
Understandably, when he first arrived at the camp with “his two cameras, a bag of lenses, and a tripod, everyone disappeared. But in just a few weeks I was keeping an appointment book, bribed with dinner invitations, great pot, wonderful parties and inviting beds — thanks to Debi Green and her sister, Teri, who were the first ones that allowed me to take their portraits. When I returned with 8 x 10 selenium toned archival silver prints as gifts for them, the neighbors wanted their photo taken.”
In just a matter of months, Wehrheim took portraits of everyone that was interested. If it weren’t for the photographs, he doubts he would have spent much time there, as he was never a resident, only a frequent overnight weekend guest.
“My subject was really the campers, not the camp. Young, beautiful people, healthy, in great shape, often naked–many were accomplished athletes and big wave surfers,” he went on to say. “The campers and their houses fascinated me; and I was drawn by the light. A giant God Box of soft, perfect light dappled through the tree canopy and then diffused in the opaque plastic of the roofs. It was hard not to make really beautiful images there. The light! It was magic. The village faced north across the beach and over the reef. There was almost always a line of towering white trade-wind cumulus marching across the horizon. It was the best natural light studio I’ve ever worked in.”
For the majority of campers at Taylor Camp, it was a wonderful experience, one of the highlights of their lives.
Rosie Rosenthal, a political science major and well known in the local community, was the “mayor”. Don May had enough construction experience to lead the camp’s water and sewer systems. Hawk, a battle-scarred street fighter, became the cop. Dave Pearson, a champion wrestler, was elected the Sheriff. When things got out of hand, they maintained order within the camp and made sure to keep it protected from outside attacks. “No one asked any of them to take on these roles. They saw a need in the community and filled it.”
From Wehrheim’s perspective, a day in the life of someone living there was simply “go with the flow.” It was all about doing whatever happened next, to live moment to moment.
“Surf good? Surf. Fish running? Set net. Ocean flat? Dive,” Wehrheim explained. “Fruit ripe? Pick. Raining hard? Hunker down and hang out. Got pot? Smoke it. Got beer? Drink it. Feeling creative? Create. Got a willing partner? Make Love. Need money? Work or go on welfare. Tired? Sleep.”
As for all the children? They may have had it rough at school, with local kids calling them names like “dirty stinkin’ hippie,” but back home at camp “life was easy–even for kids with irresponsible parents. Every tree house was their home. After school, a kid who came home to an empty house or a raging party could find solace at another house, where they’d be fed and could fall asleep knowing they were safe and secure.”
The image above is of Alpin, and tells one of the most powerful stories of childhood at Taylor Camp. And yet, this is the first time it has ever been published in the media.
But Taylor Camp wasn’t as magical of a place as an outsider might assume.
Despite the fact that the critical mass of residents wanted to “do good,” the community still experienced the woes present in any society. There was a good neighborhood, as well as a slum. The “better half” (couples with children or successful pot growers) were given prime beachfront property real estate. The further you traveled inland from the shoreline, the further you ventured into the shady parts of the community, especially once you reached the “smack shack.” It’s where all the bad boys used to hang out.
“For some, Taylor Camp was ‘The Tragedy of Paradise,’ especially for those who thought they were searching for something to give their life meaning but were actually just running away from themselves. They hoped that a place alone could heal them and make them happy,” Wehrheim said. “After moving to what had to be one of the most beautiful and carefree places on the planet, some lost hope and destroyed themselves with drugs and alcohol. The ‘mana,’ or natural healing power of the camp, was certainly felt by all. But only those who were altruistically involved with the community, and did the inner work, seemed to benefit from it.”
Although there weren’t any official rules or roles, the “bad boys–and girls–usually didn’t last long at Taylor Camp, unless they had kids. The community would tolerate a certain amount of bad behavior from parents for the sake of their children. Those who stayed have always remained a tight group.”
Almost four decades later, Wehrheim has turned his photographs into a yearbook of sorts, made exclusively of 35mm black and white images taken during the final two years of the camp’s existence. It’s an “extended family album in the form of a walking tour of Taylor Camp. There’s a fold out map that locates every house and lists all the residents. The chapters take the reader through the camp from house to house.”
Needless to say, his images are absolutely beautiful, and will most likely remain a piece of history never to be forgotten.
Much of the earlier photos, mostly color, as well as a complete history of Taylor Camp, are included in the 90-minute film, Taylor Camp: Living the ’60s Dream, along with a few large format 4 x 5 black and whites. Fimmakers Robert C. Stone and Thomas Vendetti were so incredibly moved by Wehrheim’s images that, together, they made the decision to track down the campers, their island neighbors and even some of the government officials who ultimately burned down the community.
The residents at Taylor Camp “created order without rules” during a time of radical change, hope and possibility. They really had something special for a while. Alas, they were unable to hold onto it forever.
Wehrheim explained, “As my friend Paul Theroux (who gave me the concept for the Taylor Camp book) wrote at the end of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, ‘Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost…’ With the story of the Taylor Campers—the unwitting shock troops of Kauai’s economic and cultural invasion—depending upon one’s age and experience, one may see what’s been lost.'”
Wehrheim may have never considered actually living at Taylor Camp during the 70’s, though he certainly wishes weekend visits were still an option.