ANGELS, ANARCHISTS & GODS

angels cover

JONAH RASKIN
PORTRAITS OF INDIVIDUALITY . THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
NOVEMBER 1996

Christopher Felver’s new book, Angels, Anarchists & Gods, offers 200 black and white photographs of poets, politicians, artists, activists, singers and spiritual leaders that were taken over the past 20 years, and that pay homage to the spirit of American individuality, creativity and eccentricity. At the bottom of each page, Felver provides the place and date of each photo as well as the name of the subject. Though Felver has traveled widely from London and Paris to Philadelphia and Seattle to shoot his pictures, he seems to have spent the bulk of his time in the artistic and literary circles of New York, Boulder, San Francisco, and in a way these cities are also Felver’s subjects. Only three photos aren’t portraits of people: New York’s skyscrapers sparkling in the anonymity of the night; Elaine de Kooning’s oil painting of beat poet Allen Ginsberg alongside Jack Kerouac’s paint box; and Christo’s Running Fence, shot in Sonoma County in 1976, a picture that captures our seductive hills, our spectacular cows and the legendary work of art that galvanized this community and put us on the avant garde map of contemporary sculpture.

The book begins with a stunning picture of Hippie leader Abbie Hoffman, hands to head, mouth wide open, wearing a T-shirt that reads “Howl”. It ends with a serene picture of singer/songwriter David Byrne holding his hands together as though in silent prayer. Many of the pictures are of famous figures—Norman Mailer, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Maya Angelou, Pete Seeger and Oliver Stone—and some are of figures not widely known to the public—Tom Clark, Gerald Malanga, Brice Marden. But all of the pictures have warmth and intimacy. In his introduction to this volume, the poet Robert Creeley observes that the subjects in Felver’s photographs seem “altogether open to being seen,” and in an accompanying essay, the American historian Douglas Brinkley notes that Felver “uses his camera to portray the human face behind the celebrated mask.”

Felver certainly isn’t adverse to putting his camera right in the faces of the people he’s photographing. Most of the pictures are playful, a few have an air of mystery, and some are downright funny. Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist and author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, sits behind the wheel of a convertible, wearing a sportsman’s hat and smoking a pipe with a human skull painted on the bowl. Bluesman B.B. King holds Lucille, his electric guitar, close to his round frame, eyes shut tight, lips parted. And Wavy Gravy, the comedian and all-purpose master of cultural ceremonies, looks half like a clown, half like someone’s middle-age maiden aunt. Felver has arranged the photographs so his subjects face one another. It seems appropriate that defense lawyer William Kunstler and activist/professor Angela Davis are on companion pages, and that ex-Black Panther Bobby Seale shares space with singer/pacifist Joan Baez. The writer and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu fondles the statue of a naked woman on one page; opposite him feminist Gloria Steinem sits behind her desk, seemingly entertained by his erotic playfulness. Most people would probably like to meet the famous figures in this book, at least briefly—even Hell’s Angel Sonny Barger, who of course sits on his immaculately clean motorcycle.

Having Felver’s book in your lap, turning its pages and peering into the faces of folks like Rita Dove, Russell Means, Dennis Hopper and Father Daniel Berrigan is almost as good as having them in your own living room. Angels, Anarchists & Gods is the perfect coffee-table book for anyone who feels at home among dissidents, devil’s advocates and the company of humanity.