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A Quiet Revolution

July 15, 2015 6:00 am0 commentsViews: 379
Al Kaplan, Provincetown Photographs

Commercial Street, August 1962. Photo by Al Kaplan (Courtesy of Letter 16 Press)

Al Kaplan’s Provincetown Photographs

by Steve Desroches

A collection of dirty feet. An extended arm handing a joint to a girl with a bare midriff. A group of mop-topped young men and a collie hanging out in front of the Atlantic House. These moments snapped in black and white are striking not just for the gorgeous composition and crisp, in the moment frame, but also for the place in time in Provincetown they capture. The early 1960s was an explosive time for Provincetown as one of the first locales in America to become a home for the burgeoning counterculture, and photographer Al Kaplan documented it all.

Kaplan was just 18 years old when he arrived at the Cape tip in 1961. And for the next five summers he was never without his camera snapping photographs in such rapid succession that his negative rolls appear nearly animated. Born and raised in New Bedford, young Kaplan was like many in America who were outside the mainstream: disillusioned, rebellious, a little angry. Long a home to the outsider, Provincetown beckoned those like him and became a cultural incubator. His work from that time period was not only never seen, most were never even printed. For the first time Kaplan’s Provincetown work will be seen both as a special exhibition at Gallery Ehva and in a new book coming out this summer titled There Was Always A Place to Crash: Al Kaplan’s Provincetown 1961-1966, edited by journalist Brett Sokol .

“That’s what really floored me after spending all this time on the Outer Cape,” says Sokol, who frequents North Truro, about the rarity of the subject matter in Kaplan’s photos. “I had seen photos of Provincetown pre-Sixties and photos of the 1970s and on. What’s missing is that period between, when the culture was in flux and everything was up for grabs.”

While bohemian and outsider culture had been present in Provincetown since the days of the founding of the art colony in 1899, it started to come to a combative head starting in the 1950s with the arrival of the beatniks and relatively more emboldened gay and lesbian community. However, starting almost immediately at the beginning of the decade, the new arrivals in Provincetown were unlike any other before, says Sokol. He explains that this brief period in time was sandwiched between the beatniks and the hippies, a not yet popularly named or defined youth movement. And for the most part Provincetown hated them.

Comparatively, Provincetown has long been a welcoming and tolerant community, with numerous flashes of great progressive moments. Those accomplishments and its well-earned open-minded reputation can overshadow other realities and create a rose-colored mythology. Provincetown was well into a push to rid the town of its gays and lesbians by 1961, but those town leaders who led the effort became distracted by this new group of largely heterosexual outcast, so much so that in 1962 the Cape Cod Standard-Times ran a headline “Provincetown Beatniks: Unloved and Unwashed.” By 1966 the New York Times covered the “invasion” with a story titled “New Pilgrims in Provincetown: Cape Cod Village Is The Site of A ‘Beatnik’ Beachhead That Is Angering Local Residents.”

“It was a battle for the soul of Provincetown,” says Sokol. “This new group, they seemed to completely reject a way of life from top to bottom. It was a particularly colorful and vibrant time.”

Kaplan photographed this new scene as an active participant, which is perhaps why he had such access to these many candid moments. He captured a few future well-known figures, like Rene Ricard, who would go on to be part of the Warhol factory and a famed art critic. He also shot gay rights pioneer Prescott Townsend, who lived in a ramshackle, self-built home in the far West End and gave refuge to many, including John Waters, Mink Stole, and Penny Arcade in their youth. Townsend was so radical in his quest for gay equality he handed out gay liberation fliers on the beach, and along with two others, chained himself to the front door of St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church—in drag—to protest the church’s stance on homosexuality. This was five years before Stonewall. No other photographs of Townsend in Provincetown or his “tree house” are known to exist.

The majority of Kaplan’s work however captures the everyday moments, full of marijuana smoke, long hair, and free love. One photo in particular is striking. Two young men, very much in love, smiling, nuzzle close to one another in a playful, and slightly exaggerated embrace. Same-sex couples expressing affection in public, while still shocking to much of the country now, is no big deal here in Provincetown. However, this photograph was taken in 1962, when even in libertine Provincetown this kind of public behavior could get you arrested and booted out of town. In fact, gay or straight, this collection of social outcasts was on the receiving end of a lot of police harassment, often encouraged by Town Hall. So for these two young men to be so brazen was an act of personal revolution, perhaps also encouraged by safety in numbers by so many other so-called freaks and weirdos standing up and speaking out against a society that had pushed them too far.

“It speaks to Al’s character that they were comfortable enough to act like that with him there taking photographs,” says Sokol. “They could get arrested then, even in Provincetown. They were comfortable with Al at a time when you had to be very, very careful.”

Kaplan moved to Miami in 1966, where he went on to be a celebrated photographer. He died in 2009, at the age of 67, from complications during his recovery from a heart attack. Some of his archive rests at Barry University in Miami, but most of his life’s work is in the possession of his family, mainly his son Jonathan, who was a tremendous help with the show, says Sokol. Following the show in Provincetown, the show will travel to Miami in the fall.

The photography of Al Kaplan will be on exhibition at Gallery Ehva, 74 Shank Painter Rd. from Friday, July 17 through Wednesday, July 29. An opening reception and book release party will be held on Friday, July 17 from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information call 508.487.0011 or visit galleryehva.com.