Saturday, February 1, 2014

Every Picture tells A Story: Don Aters, Rock Photographer

Janis Joplin - by Don Aters 
We humans have been documenting our existence for thousands of years. Our early ancestors used plant dyes, blood and minerals to form cave paintings that told of their experiences that happened well over 48, 000 years ago. We can also trace our history in the form of words and songs that carry the past tales of the human condition. When written words began to appear, approximately 400 years BCE, humans found they could expand their memories into a more permanent form, thus making history a bit easier to remember and pass on. Moving onward, towards the recent past, painters, troubadours and storytellers have continued to translate the human drama into forms we can all understand and relate to.

A major leap in historical documentation came about 1685, when Johann Zahn envisioned the idea of a camera, a camera obscura (although it would be about 150 years until the technology available would catch up to his vision). The devise that was created by Zahn was used as a portable drawing aid, where any image could be focused through the camera obscura and onto paper or canvas, thus allowing the artist to recreate a true image easier. It was then a fast track to cameras with plates, which then became cameras with film, which eventually, today, have become cameras with electronic sensors that create an image in a digital format.

So, all this historical gobbily-gook is leading up to my point, which is this: we need people to document the life that goes on around us. The long history of the human condition is an amazing tale and one of the best ways to tell it is via photographs. Photographers are folks who use this medium to tell a story worth a thousand words with every click of the camera. Photos often tell of the life of the photographer as well, as it is through their eyes that the photos are captured; it is through their eyes that the tales are told.

John Lennon - by Don Aters
Enter Don Aters, photographer, storyteller and fabled documentarian of one of the most turbulent and amazing periods of recent American history, what is now known in counter culture terminology as “The 60’s”. That short four year period of 1967-1970 instilled in our collective consciousness the ideas that war is bad, love is good, and music, often with the aid of mind expanding lubricants, can take your perspective to new heights of reality. It was a time that the youth of America were tired of the bullshit attempts at brainwashing and they were ready to ignite a cultural revolution with peace, free love and flowers in their hair.

But Don’s story begins long before that magical period of time…

Don grew up on Chicago’s bad side of the tracks. His mother was in poor health most of her life and he had a devoted father, both of whom later died tragically but separately in their 50’s.  Don took it upon himself to become good at sports, running in particular, which landed him with a scholarship at Indiana University. Though Don’s skills as an athlete had taken him far, the US Army wanted to take him father, to fight a war in a foreign land, a war that was both unnecessary and ugly.

The days of being exempt from active military duty for being a student were no longer valid. Due to the high death rate of soldiers, the war needed more bodies that were alive. Don Aters bucked the system in some ways and avoided the Army by being chosen instead to join the Navy SEALS, which is a long story in itself. The military experience gave him his first opportunity to handle a camera, taking pictures on reconnaissance missions. At least war was good for something, as that first camera changed the course of Don’s life forever.

His return home to the U.S. brought on more changes. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing, America was in chaos. The American youth were on the move westward via realms of higher consciousness and life was to begin again for many soldiers whose eyes have seen the hells of war.

“After the military, I ventured back to Chicago,” remembers Don. “I tried the band scenario and hung around with the “garage bands” of the era; The Buckinghams, The Cryin’ Shames, Shadows of Knight, New Colony Six and others. We would all gather in what was then Chicago’ s Old Town on Clark Street, our answer to Greenwich Village or Haight Ashbury.”

"Old Town" Chicago - Don Aters
It was 1966 and rock and roll was just beginning to show its wicked force among the masses. Don’s friend and comrade Chet Helms brought a new band to Chicago to record their first album. “That’s when I first met Big Brother & The Holding Company with Janis Joplin.” Life was never the same again.

Don’s friendship with Chet Helms was a long, fruitful and amazing union. Chet was manager of Big Brother and was an influential man in the music scene in San Francisco. His friendship with Don and his connections to Big Brother inspired Don to find his way into his own music scene in Chicago. To expand his horizons even more, Don began attending and photographing shows at New York’s famed Fillmore East, documenting the amazing music that was become the soundtrack for youth revolt of the 1960’s.

Aside from talent, Don had a knack for making friends and soon became part of the inner circle of music makers of that era, photographing not only the gigs, but also the musicians in more intimate settings such as backstage and even the musicians’ home lives.

Grace Slick - by Don Aters
“I was fortunate not to be included as “just a fan” of any chosen band,” states Don of his personal connection to the musicians. “That concept would lead to many noted icons who have either spent time in my home, or me within the walls of their abodes. During those neoteric days, there was something that would forever make us known but we were too young to realize the magnitude of what it was. “

With time on his hands to heal after a horrid injury sustained at a Civil Right's march, Don decided to follow his dreams. Back then there was no YouTube, no Facebook, no computers or online social networks to make your work known, therefore following dreams was not as easy. One had to crawl from the depths of utter obscurity in order to make their dreams happen, and Don did just that. He became a well-known photographer, creating magic with his lens.

Don set out to photograph what would become not only some of the biggest musical events of the 1960’s, but also some of the more notable events in all of American history. Monterey Pop Festival happened in 1967 and the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival happened in 1969, and Don was there, capturing some of the best-known images of Big Brother and The Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin as well as a collage of backstage antics at both events.

Jimi Hendrix - by Don Aters
At the time most people, including Don himself, had no idea what effect the burgeoning music scene that was blowing up on both coasts would have on history. To Don, it was just a chance to explore his muse, a chance to do something he loved to do and be a part of something that fed his spirit. “There was little history for me at that point, just a muse that I felt was needed at the time; the great elixir being the music of the day.”

His photographs include images of The Beatles, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and James Taylor. He ended up making his dream real amid the blazing world of colorful paisley, flags of freedom and acid-tripping youth, yet the Summer Of Love was dying and another age of malcontent was upon us.

“Time had minimal effect on the ideology of our youth. We continued to do the things that mattered, it just wasn’t like front-page sensationalism of today’s “mainstream”. We collectively could not alter a useless war in Vietnam nor could we eradicate the political corruption in Washington that still continues to this day,” says Don. “What we did constructively accomplish were advancements within the parameters of Civil Rights, Women’s Rights & Gay Rights. At that point, San Francisco was a nexus of the Bohemian lifestyle and we concentrated our efforts to envision progress in all these endeavors regardless of the hippie-esque connotations from the hierarchy of the day. It will all come full circle once again, probably not in the demographic area of Golden Gate Park or The Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. We continue to echo within the echelons of sixties grandeur and we will not be forgotten.”

Paul McCartney - by Don Aters
Fast forward to the 21st Century. The days of barefoot hippies hell-bent on Peace and drug fueled Love-In’s on the green grasses of Golden Gate Park are long gone. The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood is now a place for runaways and drug dealers amid the tie-dyed window displays of head shops and high-end, über-hip clothing shops. The voices of the people can no longer be heard over the din of fast food commercials and sound proofed SUV’s. The youth of America are no longer screaming for justice, but entranced in video games and American Idol. Pop music consists of computerized voices amid jingle-jangle crap and Americans no longer uphold the utopian ideals that Don’s generation strived for in 1969.

Many of Don’s beloved friends and icons that have seen his camera lens have passed due to drugs or ill-health. It is a new age in many realms and today things are not as pretty as they once seemed. Chet passed a few years ago from cancer. Janis, Jimi, Jim Morrison and many others have seen the ugliness of death by drugs. The fallen are gone but not forgotten.

EmmyLu Harris - by Don Aters

“I often think of the misconceptions of those who have crossed the River Styx and how different they were as opposed to the media frenzy that was so desperate to nullify their rightful places in the pantheons of musical aristocracy,” says Don of the men and women he once knew. “The trappings of the genre never change, much like the noted ‘27 Club’ which is inclusive of Janis, Jimi, Morrison, Brian Jones, Pigpen, and the list goes on. When one is young and obviously famous, mortality is never considered a reality and death is for books and movies.”

Don is still around, alive and kicking and living the sweet life in Kentucky, taking photographs of the current music of Now. Although he has been in poor health for the last 4 years with a rare kidney disease and heart surgery, his life force won’t allow him to quit yet. “I now concern myself more about where I’m going than where I’ve been.”

His cameras, all Nikons, by the way, are still clicking away to capture the music in all its glory. He is a regular at Bonnaroo Music Festival, he was present for the resurrection of the Monterey Pop Festival in 2007 and he is continuing to capture musical acts from Fleetwood Mac to Yes, from Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams; from Bob Dylan and Hot Tuna.

KISS - Don Aters
His photo archive is huge and the history he holds in film and digital images is massive. The music world he has been documenting continuously is largely immortalized because of his work. Although he has refused to “sell out” to the big magazines, his photos have been seen at The Speed Museum in Kentucky, The Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky and art galleries and Universities around the country. There were images of his in a Canadian movie in reference to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix & Janis Joplin plus he has been in print sources such as Relix Magazine and The Courier Journal.

Don is also gathering images for a museum owned by Jorma and Vanessa Kaukonen on their Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio; he is focusing on possible lecture tours with early Grateful Dead keyboardist and friend Tom Constanten and photographing one of his muses, singer Lynn Asher, who has stepped into the big shoes of Janis Joplin as one of the recent front women for Big Brother and the Holding Company.

“What inspires me about Don's work is how honest the photos are; capturing people in all their natural beauty and glory”, says Lynn Asher about Don’s work. “Don is a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of guy and I relate to that; his photography is very real. I like that most of the images show the deepest part of the person, their soul. They also tell a story by being in the present moment; nothing flashy, just raw and emotional. No fancy tricks with the camera. It inspires me to know that Don was witness to so many special moments and events in history that I can only now experience through film and music.”

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
If that is not enough to keep a very creative man busy, Don is also awaiting the first edition of his book, “Winds of Change” which features his historical pictures as well as written musings of the artists and experiences he was involved in for the last 40 years.

“The book is essentially a labor of love which was started years ago with multiple changes and edits. The text is as good as I could do, with images ranging from backstage to Fillmore East and beyond. These are the icons of an entire generation, those that made a difference within the parameters of society as well as music. The only two that are amidst the circle of friends included in the book that have a reverence for the past but see the proverbial light for the future are Lauren Murphy & Lynn Asher.”

“It is hard to express what it means to me to be a part of Don's photographic journey through his book, through his lens,” States Lynn. “To have been included among my heroes and she-ros of the artists I hold near and dear to my heart, my musical inspiration and soundtrack of my youth and adult life, is surreal and humbling. I am deeply grateful to Don and above all grateful for his love and friendship. It is such an honor to have been included.”
Lynn Asher - by Carolyn McCoy

We are in a new day and age. Life is quite different than it was 40 years ago in the heyday of social change and rabble-rousing ideology. With documentarians such as Don Aters, we are able to  remember the struggles for change those young ideologists strove for, and we can as well be reminded of the soundtrack that was part of that era.

“Whenever I am in the Bay Area, several friends walk The Haight with me as we remember those halcyon days of youthful malcontents and our own search for personal identity,” says Don. “It is within those few blocks that we all think of what we’ve done, the images taken and a pocketful of memories we carry. Some things can be taken from all of us but those days of sights, sounds and the aromas that permeated the streets adjacent to Golden Gate Park, the flaxen haired mavens of the day and our camaraderie predicated on music as the common denominator will forever define us as the Woodstock Nation.”

Angus Young -Don Aters

Mega Thanks to Don Aters for his candidness and the use of his photos. All photos used by permission.

Also Mega Thanks to Dan Rauck for his editing prowess and helpfulness on making my words pretty.

Moonmama says: "I wanna be Don when I grow up!"
Carolyn McCoy


  1. Great blog! Nice to "meet" you.

    1. I have 2 ori. stamped Don Ater prints of Janis Joplin. Are they worth any thing? I also have record Big brother and the holding company (orig)