Review: Rag Theater by Nacio Jan Brown


Book Reviews, Photobooks


In 1975, Rag Theater (The 2400 block of Telegraph Avenue) by Nacio Jan Brown was published. On the website, people who were present on the scene forty years ago are invited to post their recollection. In a letter accompanying the book the photographer wrote “The scene reminds me of the first lines of Dickens’ ‘Tales of Two Cities’: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’. The posts reflect this.” For those interested in the book, copies are newly available (contact the photographer) - it’s not a reprint, it’s the original edition (many copies of the books have been safely stored for decades). (more)

The scene on the 2400 block of Telegraph Avenue is long gone. The block itself is left, as are the photographs in the book, many of them portraits of the “flower children and riots, hard drugs and Jesus freaks, left-wing intellectuals and psychedelics, natural foods and runaways.” (quoted from the photographer’s extensive notes at the end of the book) Needless to say, unless we were there we have no way of knowing how accurately the photographs reflect what was there on that block in the early 1970s - the photographer made his choices and selections, and that’s all we get to look at. But still… photography tempts us to take things at face value, and given what we know, we might as well, at least here.

So there we are, seemingly intermingling with all these people, at least through the photographer’s camera lens, seeing what he saw, occasionally experiencing the flow of things through series of photographs of the same subject. And all of that comes to us through a book produced shortly after, a book that had been stashed away for all those years, a book whose form and production also informs us of another time. The moment you remove all elements of time from the book, you’re mostly left with the portraits, you’re left with people staring at the viewer across the abyss of time. There are some wonderful portraits in the book - have a look at the gallery online, and if you like what you see get yourself a copy of the book.

Rag Theater, photography and notes by Nacio Jan Brown, essay by Thomas Farber, Great Star Press, 1975